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KAI RYSSDAL: More than 100 years ago the Canadian government began taking aboriginal children from their homes and sending them to church-run institutions — what came to be known as Indian Residential Schools. It was a massive program of forced assimilation that endured until the last school finally closed in 1996. It also resulted in the largest class-action-lawsuit settlement Canada’s ever seen — nearly $2 billion in total compensation for survivors who apply. The settlement was approved almost a year ago.
But how far can money go toward healing? That question is at the center of this story from Marketplace’s Sean Cole.
SEAN COLE: It was a very pretty day to say sorry — June 11th — the day Prime Minister Stephen Harper was to formally apologize for governmental efforts to stamp out native culture in Canada. I went to Parliament Hill in Ottawa four hours early looking to talk to survivors of the residential schools. The sun was high and hot and Nora Martin was sitting at a picnic bench near a crowd of giggling children. She’s in her 50s, a member of the Clayoquot tribe in British Columbia, and within two minutes of meeting me she said she’d been sexually abused at her school.
Nora Martin: And I didn’t get my education. And they didn’t pay any attention to us. They just let us do what we wanted to do. We could go uptown and buy drugs.
COLE: What sort of drugs?
Martin was 12 years old when a taxi took her to Port Alberni residential school in British Columbia. She was there for four years, graduated with a drug and alcohol problem. She didn’t go into rehab until 10 years later, didn’t know she could learn until she took some college courses after that. And while she put in for the settlement claim, she said the money hasn’t exactly been part of her healing process.
MARTIN: I don’t believe you could put a price on it at all. Like, no amount of money’s ever going to help me with what I’ve gone through.
Most of the survivors I talked to that day said the same thing. But it’s complicated. It’s not like they were going to say no to the money.
And yet, any number you come up with after trying to eradicate someone’s culture is going to seem arbitrary. In short, there are two kinds of compensation. The first one is open to all residential school survivors. And then you can apply for additional money if you were abused. The fund that’s open to everyone offers $10,000 for the first year you attended a school and $3,000 for every additional year.
MIKE CACHAGEE: In my particular case that I was there for 12 and a half years I’d be eligible for $46,000.
COLE: Did you get all that?
CACHAGEE: No, I didn’t. No.
Mike Cachagee is president of the National Residential School Survivor’s Society. I caught up with him at his hotel before he took the bus up to Parliament for the apology. He’s from the Cree tribe, actually attended three schools from the time he was 4 years old, right up until he was 16.
CACHAGEE: They still owe me $12,000 because they lost records. Now you have to go back and remember. Now these schools ran for a hundred and some years. They’ve destroyed a lot of the records, like the attendance records.
By one account, nearly half of the claimants haven’t gotten everything they put in for. And they can appeal but that means actually describing a school or naming who was there. And Cachagee says the process can trigger memories he’d rather not have.
CACHAGEE: The first experience I have to do is I have to go back and apply and deal with the trauma that I experienced in residential school.
COLE: You mean sort of relive it.
CACHAGEE: Relive it. Then I have to go through reconsideration. Then I have to really get down to specifics. Again you relive it.
He says he’ll have to do this seven or eight times. But he also says it’s hard to be critical. There are more than 80,000 living survivors. The government of Canada’s never dealt with anything of this magnitude.
About half an hour before Harper’s apology, a drum circle starts up outside Parliament. Hundreds of people are settling into folding chairs to watch the address on a massive, outdoor screen. Lawrence Hookimaw of the swampy Cree tribe is one of them. He went to St. Anne’s residential school in northern Ontario where he says he was physically and sexually abused. He told me how the special compensation for abuse victims works.
LAWRENCE HOOKIMAW: What they have is kind of a point system so, you know, the more abused, the more money type of thing. I find it strange but . . .
COLE: I guess. I just . . . How do you decide how much money a certain level of abuse is worth?
HOOKIMAW: Well, that question would have to go to whoever came up with
So I called the people who administer the settlement funds, and they said this system is pretty common. They’re not sure how many survivors were abused, but they’re planning for more than 12,000 claims. And they say the amounts are comparable to what a Canadian court would award. But don’t forget, one of them said, the settlement is more than just a bunch of checks.
There’s also a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission, and funding for healing programs and commemoration events and, of course, the apology. And of the eight survivors I spoke with at Parliament that day, only one of them said the money was more meaningful than the apology: Lawrence Hookimaw, who used his check to get an apartment, and get sober and clean up his life.
HOOKIMAW: If I didn’t get any money and had an apology, I would still feel good inside. But what was that going to do me now. The money did help me. It’s not gonna erase everything. But it can make things better.
Still, he did feel gratified when the prime minister and all these other members of Parliament finally appeared on the big screen. In fact, he said, it was more than he expected.
HARPER: The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.
I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace.
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