My mother called me near the tail end of last year.
That in itself wasn’t as strange as the reason she called. She needed money. She was having trouble making it to the end of the month when her pension came in. It was a shocking call to receive.
My mother was one of the recipients of the Common Experience Payment arising from the Residential School Settlement. Last fall, she and my stepfather received $10,000 for the first year they attended a school and $3,000 for every year after. They were paid well over $70,000 dollars combined. Now, mere months later, she was broke and in need.
See, my mother and my stepfather have a gambling problem. Even when they were just living off their pensions, and they are both in their mid-70s, they made the two-hour trip to Winnipeg to hit the casino at least every second week. When the government windfall came in, they were able to go every week.
My sister, who lives just up the road, says they disappeared for weeks at a time. They would come home to the reserve for a few days and be off again. She knew they were going to gamble, but there was nothing she could say or do to bring them to their senses. Now, all of that money is gone and my mother is in dire financial straits.
They call it a Common Experience Payment, but for a lot of residential school survivors across the country, it’s just being victimized all over again. Because the Assembly of First Nations, and National Chief Phil Fontaine, were so eager to be seen as visionaries in getting the money paid they neglected to think about aftercare. They allowed lump sum payments to people totally unprepared to deal with them.
Indeed, a report last week indicated a significant rise in alcohol abuse, drug addiction, domestic violence, suicide and death as a result of residential school settlement money. In BC alone, where I live these days, there are 24 deaths attributed to the CEP money. But those are the headline-grabbing stories and the ones that are easy to track. What are not reported are cases like my mother’s. Instances where formerly poor people suddenly had thousands of dollars thrust upon them and wasted it. Blew it. Lost it.
Each of my uncles is broke today. They spent years in residential school and their cheques were huge. One has vehicles parked in his yard that he can’t afford to gas and drive. Another went on prodigious benders and was down to mooching change from my sister when she went shopping in town before Christmas. My family was forced to suffer all over again.
I have no idea what else the AFN expected to happen. When you live your entire life in poverty, when cash only ever represents a bridge to food and clothing and basic necessities, a few thousand dollars can seem like a mountain of money. When you never had sufficient cash on hand to learn abut budgeting, saving, investing, there’s no way you would ever know those options exist.
Sadly, I know that there are hundreds of casinos across the country that claimed a lot of those payments. The government itself must smile knowing that the billions in payouts quickly worked their way back into their coffers. The AFN, for all its braggadocio over the settlement, are solely to blame for the sad end to their vaunted crusade.
There should not have been a dime of that money paid out until financial counselors were in place for every survivor. The assembly will say that they tried to make those efforts, that they worked with other groups, but clearly, they didn’t try hard enough. They should have insisted. They should have had it included in the settlement agreement. They should have protected their people before any payments were issued.
What happened to my mother need not have occurred. She’s an elder, one of the oldest people on her reserve, and our political leaders are very good at chest thumping and stating how much they respect and honour their elders. If that were so, they would have had systems and programs in place to help them and in too many cases, save them.
Each of those deaths resulting from CEP money did not need to happen. Every family that grieves the loss of a residential school survivor did not need to suffer. Every remaining survivor who finds themself in a desperate situation, who fights depression and thoughts of suicide because of the CEP money, does not deserve the anguish.
Canada’s residential schools are the nation’s shame. But the fallout from the settlement is our shame, and it’s the AFN’s shame, too. Leaders should lead, not set their people up for a crippling fall.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org