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Dollars for horrors

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Dec 02/05) - Margaret Leishman felt waves of anger wash over her as she walked along the streets of Fort Simpson, where she was visiting last week.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Margaret Leishman displays a photo of herself and seven classmates at Sacred Heart mission school in Fort Providence circa 1959. Only three of the students are still alive today. In the photo, Leishman stands in the back row at left. - Derek Neary/NNSL photo

She was pondering the just-announced $1.9-billion federal compensation package for residential school survivors. She couldn't help but think of all her schoolmates who have already passed on, many from alcohol-related ailments.

"It was a very emotional day for me," said Leishman, a Kakisa resident who spent eight years at Sacred Heart mission school in Fort Providence during the 1950s. "But I am happy and relieved that something has come about... for me it's the beginning of something we've been looking for."

Leishman said the torment she experienced at residential school was emotional and mental. For others it was physical and sexual.

Aboriginal youth were taken from their parents and placed in Catholic-run institutions for most of each year. Leishman can still remember the police coming for her in a boat.

"It was scary," she said, adding that some terrified youngsters scrambled into the bush in an attempt to escape.

The students were forced to get haircuts, change clothes and forbidden to speak in their aboriginal tongue.

Sam Gargan, of Fort Providence, said the nuns used to dunk his head in a bucket of water for speaking Slavey, the only language he knew when he arrived at Sacred Heart school at age 5.

"I was brutally punished," he said. "I went through a lot. I suffered quite a bit."

He saw other boys get kicked regularly by the school staff, he said, noting that he has never shared the painful details with his family.

"I care for them and I don't want to see them go through that same experience," he said.

Through the federal government's settlement offer, each former student is entitled to at least $10,000. An additional $3,000 will be paid for every year an individual attended the schools. The compensation will be capped at $30,000 a person. The offer also includes $125 million for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation's programs. There are tens of millions of dollars more designated for a truth and reconciliation process and a commemoration project.

Gargan said the deal may help ease some people's financial burden, but everyone has been left to cope with the trauma all these years. He said he has wrestled with it himself.

"You learn to live with the pain of being away from your family," he said, "and the pain of being denied the right to speak your language and exercise your culture."