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Paying for the past

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Nov 28/05) - Money will never fully compensate for damage done to Dene culture by forcing aboriginal children to attend residential schools, said a Fort Providence man who has championed their cause.

Last week, the federal government and First Nation and Inuit groups from around the country announced a $1.9 billion settlement.

NNSL Photo/graphic

The federal government estimates there are 80,000 former students alive today. There were about 13,000 claims and lawsuits before the government and courts, about 2,800 of which have been resolved.

  • $10,000 for everyone who attended a residential school, plus $3,000 for each year they attended;
  • $125 million for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which supports programs designed to help former students;
  • $8,000 in advance payments for those over 65;
  • an improved plan to deal with claims of sexual and physical abuse;
  • $60 million for public education and to provide a venue for former students to share their stories; and
  • $10 million for events and memorials that commemorate the schools.

  • Once the deal is finalized, former residential school students will receive a $10,000 lump sump, plus $3,000 for each year they attended a residential school. A person who spent 10 years in residential school could receive up to $40,000.

    Joachim Bonnetrouge, head of the Fort Providence Residential School Society, said while the compensation is welcome, the damage to Dene culture will never be undone.

    "When is enough going to be enough?" said Bonnetrouge, who spent 10 years at the Sacred Heart Mission School in Fort Providence - perhaps the largest residential school in the North.

    "Many people were driven to addictions like drinking, drugs and gambling. I think we will be dealing with the after effects for 20 or 30 years."

    There were about 130 residential schools in Canada from the mid-1800s to 1996, though most were closed by the 1970s. The Catholic and Anglican churches - with the support of Ottawa - ran schools in most Northwest Territories' larger settlements including Yellowknife, Inuvik, Fort Smith and Fort Providence.

    The schools were designed to educate aboriginal children in the Western tradition, but some became infamous for their harsh treatment of students. Many were sexually assaulted, prevented from speaking their native language and separated from their parents.

    "The government has fully acknowledged that this was a racist (plan) designed to assimilate aboriginals," said Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya, a former student.

    "This has been a long time coming."

    Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who spoke Wednesday in Ottawa, called the agreement "a lasting resolution to the Indian residential school legacy."

    First Nations leaders in the North said the settlement represents an acknowledgement of what went wrong, said Bill Erasmus, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for the Northwest Territories.

    "I think this is really profound," he said. "It will strengthen the ties between (aboriginals) and Canada."

    The money earmarked for public education - about $60 million - has been overshadowed during the last week, Bonnetrouge said. Those monies are perhaps the most important part of the deal, he said.

    "Young people are always asking: 'How come mom and dad are the way they are? Why are they drinking?'," he said. "Awareness about what happened is important."

    The agreement has some critics. In a news release, Dene National Chief Noeline Villebrun said Wednesday she supports the deal, but says it falls short.

    The deal fell below what was offered to Japanese Canadians interned during the Second World War, she said.

    The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation issued a press release last week to welcome the settlement. According to Rosemarie Kuptana, with IRC's legal department, a lawsuit filed by the corporation in September to ensure its beneficiaries received compensation will be dropped once the settlement is finalized.

    While there is no firm timetable for when the individual payments will start, Erasmus hoped money would start flowing in January.