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Residential school deal settles 'unfinished' business

Jason Unrau
Northern News Services

Inuvik (Dec 16/05) - Inuvialuit residential school survivors gathered at Centennial Library Monday evening to hear details of the tentative financial compensation package for aboriginal people forced to attend residential schools.

NNSL Photo/graphic

A survivor of residential school herself, Rosemarie Kuptana has headed up the Inuvialuit Residential School Unit since Aug. 26. The unit includes IRC legal counsel Hugo Prud'homme. - Jason Unrau/NNSL photo

The $1.9 billion agreement was reached last month between the federal government and church organizations reached with the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, of which the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation is a member. IRC legal counsel Hugo Prud'homme provided details of the agreement's five components.

First, there is a basic financial package or "common experience payment" that guarantees $10,000 to anybody who attended a residential plus $3,000 for each additional year spent at such an institution. Contrary to reports of a $30,000 ceiling on the amount, Prud'homme says there is no limit.

Second, students who suffered serious physical abuse or sexual abuse can apply to receive an additional settlement up to $525,000 for their pain and suffering.

The third part of the deal includes a truth and reconciliation process that will document people's personal experiences for the historical record and for educational purposes.

"This is a piece of unfinished business between Canada and residential school survivors," said Rosemarie Kuptana, IRC residential schools unit manager. She said participation in the truth and reconciliation process is optional.

The fourth and fifth components are money to build memorials and a $20 million trust fund for healing programs.

Kuptana says that the Assembly of First Nations and the federal government had been making a deal behind closed doors and it wasn't until May that the IRC got wind of the negotiations and ended up suing the government in June to get a seat at the table.

"We were not included and never invited (so) the only way we could get involved was by filing a lawsuit," said Prud'homme. "(And once at the table) it was not an easy process."

Prud'homme advised the Inuvialuit former residential school students that the agreement comes with conditions.

"After accepting the payment, former students will not be allowed to take the government or the churches to court," said Prud'homme.

As well, if more than 5,000 of an estimated 80,000 people eligible for redress choose not to accept the deal, the federal government reserves the right to cancel the agreement. Prud'homme also cautioned the group that the agreement was contingent on cabinet approval and if the Liberals don't win the coming election, the next government may not honour the deal.

However, Kuptana was confident that the next government, Liberal or otherwise would ratify the agreement.

"If they don't they'll look pretty bad," she said.

"What's really upsetting is who is going to acknowledge the people who suffered and have passed away or committed suicide," said Mary Cockney, who spent four years at Grollier Hall and hasn't decided whether or not she'll accept the deal. "Where's the truth and reconciliation or financial compensation for them?"

During the meeting, this point was brought up by other survivors and Prud'homme said it was an issue at the bargaining table.

"We tried to include former students who have died and the government said it could do it but that would mean less for those who are still alive," he explained. "Our position at the IRC was to get as good a deal as possible.

"The government has everything to gain by doing nothing and without this agreement the only winner is the government."

For Kuptana, who spent 10 years in residential school, her feelings, like Cockney's, were mixed.

"It brings up a lot of painful and hurtful memories but I'm glad this is happening because we have to deal with it at some point."

Other aspects of the agreement in principle:

Ae Survivors who were 65 years of age or older before May 30, 2005 are eligible for an $8,000 advance on their total payout early next year.

Prud'homme noted that while the neither the advance nor amount was negotiable, the May 30 cutoff date could be extended to the end of 2005.

Ae In the unfortunate event survivors 65 or older who pass away before receiving their money, a clause allows the settlement to be willed to relatives.

Ae Those seeking compensation for serious physical and/or sexual abuse can do so through a dispute resolution mechanism and legal costs will be covered by the federal government.