WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
With a little more than a month until the deadline to apply for the class action settlement for those who suffered harm while attending federally-run Indian day schools, some are questioning whether survivors have been getting the level of compensation they deserve.
“It’s the kind of thing that you don’t want to relive again,” said Francis Williams, a member of the Gitanyow Band in British Columbia, about his experience attending the Anglican Church-run Kitwancool Indian Day School from kindergarten to Grade 7.
“It’s in the past and you don’t want to bring it up again, but you have to put it on paper without anybody helping you.”
While separate from the residential school system, Indian and federal day schools were also part of a federal policy aimed at assimilating Indigenous children, and often had religious affiliations to the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican and other churches.
In 2019, Canada signed a $1.47-billion settlement with thousands of former students at the 600-plus schools that operated across Canada between 1863 and 2000.
The deadline to submit a claim is July 13, 2022. Claimants with exceptional circumstances can apply for a six-month extension following the deadline, according to the settlement agreement.
Compensation is on a tiered system for harms suffered, from level one to level five, ranging from $10,000 to $200,000. Survivors making claims for levels two to five need to write a statement disclosing details of the abuse they suffered.
Williams said he was repeatedly punished for speaking the Gitxsan language, leaving lifelong health problems.
“I have permanent nerve damage in my back because of the strapping, from cringing all the time,” he said.
“Every time I get nervous now or get too excited, I have really bad back spasms. It just paralyzes me.”
Under the settlement agreement, repeated incidents of physical abuse causing permanent or long-term injury falls under a level four claim. However, Williams said he only filed for level one because he didn’t have guidance or counselling at the time and is now unable to resubmit his claim.
Majority of claims filed at level 1
According to the settlement’s claims administrator Deloitte, a total of 144,257 claims had been filed as of May 2. The majority — 107,220 — have been level one, with around 85 per cent of those claims paid out thus far.
Nicholas Racine, a lawyer with Bergerman Smith LLP Saskatoon, has assisted over 400 survivors across Saskatchewan and Alberta with their claims. He said Williams is far from alone when it comes to receiving less compensation than deserved.
“Almost on a daily basis, I hear from survivors who resigned themselves to a level one claim because they didn’t know how to make an application for a higher amount,” said Racine.
In September, two motions were filed to the Federal Court of Canada to allow for ongoing progressive disclosure, a concept that survivors of abuse reveal more as they become more comfortable. In its report on lessons learned from the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation said progressive disclosure would be important to accommodate in future compensation processes.
The motions were dismissed by Justice Michael L. Phelan, and are being appealed.
“It appears that those in charge of the process have put expediency ahead of adhering to the principles of truth and reconciliation,” said Racine.
He said the majority of survivors he’s met qualify for at least a level four claim. However, he said, a trusting relationship needs to be established for a survivor to open up about their experiences. Given his experience, he said many are not likely to freely offer details nor are in a position to self-diagnose.
Cam Cameron, Class Counsel lead for the settlement, acknowledged there have been cases where claimants filed without writing a narrative and later regretted it.
“We’ve consistently asked people to take their time before they write out,” he said.
“We know that after waiting years to do this, to be able to submit a claim, it can be an emotional process, but we’re here to help.”
Class counsel offers free assistance to claimants.
However, for Williams, he said he will not remain quiet about his situation.
“The only reason why I’m making a make noise is because it seems to be adding more pain to my pain,” he said.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at Indian or federal day schools, and those who are triggered by these reports. Individuals can access immediate mental health counselling and crisis intervention services at the Hope for Wellness helpline by calling 1-855-242-3310 or online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.