WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan is demanding the removal of deadlines for claims associated with a national class-action settlement for First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who suffered harm while attending federally run day schools.
In 2019, Canada signed the $1.47-billion Indian Day Schools settlement with thousands of former students at the more than 600 schools that operated across Canada. The claims process opened in January 2020 and the deadline to submit a claim was originally set for July 13, 2022.
However, claimants are able to apply for an extension until Jan. 13 at 11:59 p.m. PST. Extension requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis by a committee appointed by the Federal Court.
Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations — which represents over 70 First Nations in Saskatchewan — says that deadline doesn't allow enough time for some survivors.
The FSIN wants the compensation program to "remain open for years to come," since many survivors "are still coming to terms with their past schooling experience and will miss out for reasons that are not their fault," Cameron said in a statement on Wednesday.
Some may have suppressed memories of their physical, sexual and emotional abuse "and need time to process when making their application," he said.
Indian day schools operated separately from residential schools, so students were left out of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that recognized the damage inflicted by those schools and established a $1.9-billion compensation fund.
However, day schools were operated by many of the same groups that ran residential schools.
The day school class action, which was handled by the law firm Gowling WLG, was filed in 2009 on behalf of former students and families of students.
The FSIN also said in its statement it is aware of several First Nations people excluded from applying for the settlement because the schools they attended were not included in the settlement list.
Cameron also noted that not all survivors may have the resources to file claims.
"Those who don't have the means to access or apply online properly, those that are in the jails, the streets and hospitals will be missed," he told CBC.
Cameron said there will likely be legal action if the deadline isn't extended.
A spokesperson for the federal Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs department said the compensation and deadlines for the day schools settlement were negotiated by the parties and approved by the courts.
Over 178,000 claims have been received and more than 124,000 survivors have received payments for individual compensation under the settlement, which "exceeds class size estimates and anticipated take-up rates," the spokesperson said in an email to CBC.
Different compensation levels
Compensation is based on a tiered five-level system for harms suffered, ranging from $10,000 to $200,000.
Cameron, who is himself a day school survivor, says some claimants received compensation at a lower level than they should have.
"I was almost killed in that school in Witchekan Lake First Nation and they only compensate me at a Level 2," Cameron said. "How do you compensate for attempted murder? I will never forget … as a four-year-old boy what I went through."
He also says the different levels of compensation could have been explained better to claimants by lawyers and having more Indigenous voices involved could have made the settlement more efficient.
"The program administrators have not done their job," Cameron's statement said. He also claimed Gowling WLG, the legal that handled the class action, is "benefiting off the backs of First Nations people who have already endured tremendous pain and suffering."
A representative from Gowling WLG wrote that class counsel cannot comment on third-party views about the court-approved settlement agreement.
Cam Cameron, a Gowling WLG lawyer and lead counsel for the settlement agreement, said in an emailed statement that survivors or estates who are waiting to receive supporting documents should not delay in submitting an extension request form and claim form.
A toll-free line at 1-844-539-3815 has team members ready to help survivors submit their claims, the statement said.
Most vulnerable could be most affected
Eleanore Sunchild, a Cree lawyer in Saskatchewan, has been working to help survivors file claims.
"The stories I always hear at the last minute are always really severe abuse stories," Sunchild said. "Those survivors always wait until the end because it's so hard for them to talk about."
She believes the Jan. 13 deadline should have been extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"People couldn't access support, they couldn't access therapy, they couldn't access people to help them with these claims," Sunchild said.
"Now they are coming into my office and offices all around Canada to help them tell their terrible story at the 11th hour," she said. "It's really unfair."
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.