On the heels of a $2-billion compensation settlement to former residential school students, some of their children are wondering aloud whether the abuse and neglect they suffered at the hands of their damaged parents is also worth some cash.
The discussion of a whole new round of claims emerges just a month before many of the descendants line up to tell their stories to a federally established truth and reconciliation commission, and their parents receive a formal apology from the Prime Minister of Canada.
“They’re all complaining that they were abused by their parents that have gone to residential school, (so) how come they’re not getting compensated for it?” says Roger Ellis, a 59-year-old Whitehorse native who attended mission school in Carcross and Whitehorse.
Ellis, who has been employed for several years with the Whitehorse-based Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools, is among 1,600 students who have, or will be, receiving an average of $28,000 in compensation under Ottawa’s common-experience payment.
The compensation package, which started trickling in earlier this winter, will bring almost $45 million to Yukon alone.
And there is more money coming.
Ellis awaits another $90,000 in special compensation for abuse, an agreement reached under a separate process known as independent assessment.
“It was not enough, actually,” says Ellis of seeking additional damages above and beyond those offered for loss of language and culture through the common experience pay-out, “for all the abuse I went through — mental, physical and verbal abuse.”
As a community worker, he sees the ripple effects of mission schools firsthand through the alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, poverty and a host of other social ills among his people.
Many of them could not be stopped from frittering away compensation money that could have elevated them and given them security, he said.
“I’d say a quarter of the people who have received it are just abusing it by buying a lot of drugs and booze and just partying a lot,” he says.
“(I’ve heard) that bell was going off steady in the Capital and ’98 — people buying rounds. They spend $500 to $700 a day in the bars; they just laugh about it, and then they charter a limousine up to Dawson and back — 1,800 bucks.
“We told them, ‘once the money’s gone, that’s it.’ We said, ‘You can’t go back and ask for more. It’s just a one-time shot. You guys need to know how to budget,’ but some of them couldn’t care less. They just said, ‘It’s my money, I can do what I want with it.’”
For better or for worse, the compensation was won through a negotiated agreement amongst the former students, the churches that ran the schools and the federal government.
Parties to the agreement compromised for the sake of expedience, Ken Young, senior adviser to Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, said in a telephone interview from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“A class action would have resolved all the issues, if a class action was settled, but class actions take too damned long,” said Young.
“We couldn’t wait. There’d be nobody left by the time a class action was settled. There’d be nobody left. We’re losing four survivors every day.
“What has to be done, in my view, is that another class action has to be launched for second generation family members, if they want to do so. It’s going to be difficult, but it’s doable … I think we would need to fan some interest.
“We would make it a priority, if the second generational people took the initiative and moved with it, absolutely. We would take it on. Of course we would take it on.”
Although few dispute dysfunction begets dysfunction, not all agree that compensation begets compensation.
The common-experience package includes money to fund collective healing initiatives, psychological counselling and the opportunity to speak to the truth and reconciliation commission, all of which are available to the subsequent generations.
Whitehorse lawyer Laura Cabott was a key player at the negotiating table that made the agreement. She represents about 500 former Yukon, British Columbia and Northwest Territories students who seek damages apart from those offered through the common-experience payment.
Cabott assists former students with the common-experience paperwork pro bono, and she has fielded 20 to 30 inquiries from some of their children, who seek money of their own.
But she will not represent them.
“Legally, it’s a weak argument for intergenerational individuals to seek compensation,” said Cabott. “Morally, it’s not wrong. Morally, it’s a strong argument, but legally….
“When you’re taking matters to court, you have to be aware of what the law is, and how far you can stretch it or bend it or change it. That is just a really weak case. That’s why it’s not part of this whole settlement agreement.”
In one sense, the common-experience payment has already been extended to the second generation, after a recent decision by Ottawa to release benefits to the families of former students who died before they could receive their money.
However, damages for the intergenerational trauma are a different matter, explained Cabott.
“It’s the law. If you have a woman who’s severely injured in a car accident, the effects of that car accident will affect her husband, her children, her grandchildren, right? But we don’t compensate those people … It’s too far down the line.”
If the Assembly of First Nations does take up the fight, it will force Ottawa to decide whether it recognizes the impact of intergenerational trauma to the same degree as the residential school experience.
It will also compel former students, like Young, to air the inadequacies of their parenting in yet another forum.
“I know I went through that,” said the 58-year-old Young, who raised one daughter. “I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been what you would call a ‘good, nurturing father.’
“Being able to hug or kiss my daughter and say, ‘I love you.’ I missed that, because our parents also went to residential school. We never saw any of that behaviour by them.
“I wouldn’t want to answer for the second generational people. My daughter is one. She’s never talked to me about it. It may not be necessary. It may be difficult to prove harm. That’s a consideration. But the issue of my daughter being able to come to the commission and tell her story about the way she experienced her mom and her dad … she should be able to do that.”
Hobbema, Alberta, RCMP Cpl. Darrel Bruno agrees, but he stops short of supporting compensation for the children.
A cop and a member of one of the richest First Nations in North America, Bruno has seen hundreds of millions of dollars in oil revenues, and, more recently, common-experience payments flow through Hobbema, but nothing has helped its youth so much as collaborative efforts to re-establish a relationship with RCMP, and effective programming that promotes family values, leadership, role modeling, healthy lifestyles and employment training.
“These kids want to belong,” said Bruno, himself a volunteer with a local native cadet corps.
“They want something positive; they’re searching.”
The results of these efforts are finally beginning to show, he says.
Today, 29 per cent of Alberta’s aboriginal population has a post-secondary diploma or degree.
“Things are changing (but) it took us a hundred years to get this way,” he said. “It may take us a hundred years to go back the other way.
“Compensation, myself, I don’t think it’s good … there has to be a turning point.”
AFN leadership expects a formal apology from Ottawa for its part in residential schools within the next month, after which the truth and reconciliation commission will begin hearings.
But for Young, the ceremony will not signal the closing of the residential school file.
AFN intends to pursue compensation for students who went to native day schools, and, if requested to do so, for those whose parents attended them.