As a national outcry persists following the recent uncovering of childrens’ graves at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., former students of federally-operated institutions are forced to come to terms with this tragedy while continuing their own battle for justice.
Since January 13, 2020, Indigenous people forced to attend Indian day school have been able to submit a claim for compensation, as part of a nationwide class-action legal settlement.
This lawsuit is part of the many ongoing legal battles Indigenous people are undertaking to obtain indemnity for harms suffered while attending schools operated by the government of Canada and religious institutions.
The 15-page document claimants are asked to fill in, in order to enter the class action settlement, demands details of specific accounts related to, namely, physical and verbal abuse endured while attending the schools.
“I had to go back in time and try to remember all the way back to 1953, when I was five-years- old,” said Arthur Ray Diabo, who attended Kateri Indian Day School in Kahnawake. “It brought back a lot of memories about when I was in school and how they treated us. To fill out those documents was a pain, but I know it had to be done.”
There are a total of five claim levels former students can apply for as part of the settlement. These levels vary from verbal or physical abuse, such as threats of violence and unreasonable punishment, to repeated sexual and physical abuse causing serious injury.
As levels increase, so does the indemnification amount beginning with $10,000 and with the last level offering compensation of $200,000.
Diabo is among those who was required to resubmit his claim after a year had passed and he was told his claim contained an error related to a date. Today, the Kahnawa’kehró:non said it has been over 16 months since he began the arduous process.
“Even though I understand that the process is slow, this is basically going backwards now,” he said.
The feelings of disempowerment expressed by Diabo in response to the lengthy procedure he continues to endure is felt by other community members, including Wahianoron Diabo.
“The amount of time it’s taking to process my mother’s claim is staggering,” said Wahianoron, referring to the claim she is filing on behalf of her mother Ida Deer, who passed away on April 19, 2016. “It’s been almost a year and they still aren’t able to confirm they received the documentation – this delay is unacceptable.”
Wahianoron expressed that the emotional strain brought on by the process is discouraging her from filing an application of her own.
“It brought up emotions having to go through all the papers: all the grief, sadness, and the fact
that she deserved compensation but never received it,” she said.
The operation of the day schools in Canada ranged from the 1860s, up to the 1990s. With nearly 700 Indian day schools in the country; 54 were in Quebec, and 11 were located in Kahnawake.
However, only 10 of those are part of the settlement.
In order to help the potentially thousands of community members looking to file a claim, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) hired Louise Mayo to assist with the daunting and too often emotionally taxing process.
“It was estimated that we would have roughly 5,000 individuals that were eligible and of those, about 1,000 would be executors or administrators claiming for deceased claimants,” explained Mayo, coordinator for the Indian Day School Settlement Project.
Former students of Indian day school have until July 13, 2022, to submit their claim.
“I am one of the very few people in Canada that’s been hired to provide this type of support,” she pointed out. “Community members are really appreciative of the fact that there’s someone available to guide them and to assist them with going through the application process because it can be very intimidating.”
According to Deloitte, the claim management company appointed by the federal government to process claims for this settlement, there have been a cumulative 113,829 claims received up till May 31.
While 75,244 of these claims have thus far been processed and issued payment, thousands of claimants have been required to resubmit their form after Deloitte determined their application to be “needing more information.”
In mid-May, community members were also informed by MCK that Deloitte reported three claims as “lost in the system.” According to Mayo, two additional claims have since been reported as lost.
Deloitte has not responded to questions asked by The Eastern Door in time for publication.
A community member who asked to remain anonymous said that for her part, she has been asked to file her application three times in the past year alone.
“Yesterday, I called, they said that it may be on its way to the second part. I was happy, until they said I have to wait 90 days for results,” she explained. “I feel I’m not getting anywhere.”
The horrific discovery in Kamloops stirred many to raise questions about the lack of public acknowledgement and information taught to the general Canadian population.
Meanwhile, Kahnawa’kehró:non Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean pointed out that these conversations tend to leave behind other children-targeted assimilation systems.
“There is a larger discourse about Indigenous education, which is really dominated by Indian residential schools,” said Whitebean, who is currently completing a Ph.D. focused on the former day schools in the community. “These are very important histories and stories that also need to be talked about.”
She expressed that as the public seeks to learn more about one system, there should be a simultaneous call for other answers about past and present systems targeting Onkwehón:we.
Whitebean said these institutions include residential and day schools, Sixties Scoop students, as well as the current overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system.
“It is an ongoing problem of this same old pattern of the different ways children are removed from their ancestral language and cultural identities, which disrupts our families,” said Whitebean. “These are not isolated events, and in families such as my own, we have had encounters with all of these instances of what I call child-targeted assimilation.”
As former students of the day school system work through the settlement process, many have expressed reluctance to speak up about incidents of sexual abuse or physical violence.
Because claimants are required to assign a level to their claim, withholding such information actually entails former students applying for less compensation than what they would otherwise be prescribed to receive.
For Kanesatake’s Luke Gabriel, claiming a higher level meant disclosing painful information about his past, which he was not ready to relive.
“I first filed for my claim in April of 2020, and although I should have claimed for a higher level, I was too ashamed to talk,” said Gabriel.
After being asked to resubmit his claim two additional times, Gabriel said the overall process can only be described as extremely difficult.
“It’s been a frustrating and painful experience for them to play with me like this,” he said. “It really makes me think they just want to cause harm.”
Whitebean explained that the overarching feeling of shame that former students often live with does not belong to them, as what they experienced was and continues to be out of their control.
“Our people always resisted the day schools here – this is well documented and clear once you dig into these histories,” said Whitebean. “We always advocated for our language and we always did our best to protect our children. And we continue to do that.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door