Malcolm Dawson describes his childhood at the Whitehorse Baptist Mission school as hell. But he can’t remember many details.
“I remember I used to dread August, because August was the last month before I had to go back to school,” he said. “It was something like being in jail. I used to play hooky all the time because all I had in school was trouble. I used to wander around and hide in the alleys.
“I was just a little guy and they’d tell me I was good for nothing and wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
Dawson also remembers scrubbing himself profusely with soap and water as a kid.
“I was trying to wash the brown off me,” he said.
But these memories are not enough for him to qualify for claims intended for former students who endured severe physical or sexual abuse.
Dawson, now 70, was four or five when he started going to the Whitehorse school. He remembers being “manhandled” and singled out for punishments, but he cannot provide specifics.
Like other former students, he says his mind has blocked out the most traumatic memories.
The government-sanctioned residential schools were run by priests and nuns across Canada for over a century. Aboriginal children as young as four were kidnapped from their families, often at night in community raids.
Many students remember being packed into the back of pickup trucks, where they would be thrown around the truck for hours, without jackets, in the middle of the frigid Yukon winter. They were brought to schools that were usually far away from anything they’d ever known and endured years of aggressive assimilation, like being beaten, locked in a closet or refused food for speaking their traditional languages.
During the heyday of residential schools, the death rate of students was nearly half.
All survivors that have proven they attended the schools were eligible for a payout of $10,000 for their first year of school and $3,000 for every year after.
But Dawson wasn’t eligible for that money because he didn’t have to board at school. His family lived in town.
So Dawson is now seeking a claim through his only other option: the abuse claims intended for former students who endured severe physical or sexual abuse.
“The example I always give is, ‘If they almost broke your neck, or did break your neck and you went to the hospital for that, then you can submit a claim,’” said Joanne Henry, the executive director for the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools, a Whitehorse drop-in centre for former students. “It’s a really hard process. It’s all based on memory. It’s all based on you telling your story and getting the specifics right. And you have kids that were four, five and six in residential school – some of them horribly, horribly abused – and I think, anyone can look back to when they were four, five and six and ask themselves: how much do they remember from that time?
“The government is not looking for 100 ways to pay you, they’re looking for one way not to. Even though you go and do all the paperwork, I’ve heard of people who have put in claims where there was sexual abuse and they’ve been denied based on little, little things.”
Dawson has been told he doesn’t have enough evidence to prove his abuse claim.
“This has nothing to do with not believing you,” his lawyer Laura Cabott wrote in an August letter, explaining that she would not be able to represent him for his claim. “What you have been able to tell me, in my legal opinion, does not qualify you for compensation.”
Cabott has been representing former students for the past 14 years.
“This process is not perfect and it certainly doesn’t capture people that still struggle to get their memory back or to remember these things or to provide sufficient detail,” said Cabott.
But the process is a lot better than a normal civil or criminal court case, she said.
Claimants aren’t interrogated. Instead, they simply tell their story, alone in a room with an adjudicator, said Daniel Ish. He’s
the chief adjudicator of the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat, a collection of independent lawyers and judges who are hearing the abuse claims.
So long as their story is coherent, not far-fetched and consistent with the schools’ records, chances are the claim will go through, he said.
“It’s still a challenge, of course, for people to remember that far back, but they give the testimony as best they can and then it’s measured against the records of the school,” said Ish. For example, the name of a teacher may be checked to see whether he or she worked at the school at the time abuses took place.
Survivors face a lower threshold of evidence than they would in a criminal or civil court. So long as survivors can prove they were abused, they only have to “plausibly” link harms like health concerns or wage loss, said Ish.
But proving abuse can be difficult.
Cabott, Henry and Ish have all worked with clients who say their minds have blocked out details, like Dawson claims. They agree this is a recognized psychological coping mechanism, especially for young victims of trauma.
But if a former student can’t prove they suffered abuse, they won’t be able to receive a claim. And the abuse application demands details.
Along with remembering dates, names and schools, applicants also have to explain precisely what happened to them in great detail. Where they touched on top of, or under, clothing? Was there simulated intercourse, digital penetration or full, repeated and persistent penetration?
If it happened more than once, how often, over how long? What happened before and after the abuse took place? Where in the school did it take place? And what impact has this abuse had on your life?
Dawson can’t provide those details, and he can’t call any witnesses to his defence.
“They’re all dead,” he said. “All the kids I went to school with are dead now. They either drank themselves to death or were killed. My brother Gerald, my best witness, he was killed a few years back.”
Dawson never left his brother’s side at the school.
“He was my ears,” Dawson said. He means that literally: Dawson has trouble hearing.
“They thought I was retarded,” he said about his teachers at the mission school. “I could see their lips moving but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.”
He doesn’t remember if his hearing problems started before he attended the school, or whether they may have been caused by what he endured.
But Dawson can talk about his struggles since attending residential school. Like many of his schoolmates, alcoholism became an escape.
“If it wasn’t for my mom, I’d be dead,” he said.
Dawson eventually quit drinking to provide a better example for his own children, he said.
And, following his father’s example, Dawson has always maintained a regular job. He remembers reserving Sundays to sober up for the week ahead, even when his drinking was at its worst.
Adulthood addictions and job loss are considered in the abuse-claim process, said Ish. And adjudicators incorporate plans for counselling and other supports when approving claims, which average about $105,000. The highest claim that has been awarded was for about $445,000.
But even without a claim, Dawson could be considered lucky.
Because he didn’t have to board at the school as a child, he enjoyed summers on the land, unlike so many other former students.
And, after about eight years, Dawson was given the rare opportunity to go to a public high school in Whitehorse. That was the first time anyone ever thought to test his hearing, he said.
“I went from hating school, to excelling in it. They found out I was a genius, eh?” he said with a laugh.
Dawson’s humour is what he’s known for – that and his ability to pluck a guitar.
“People see me around, they hear my jokes and listen to me play. But none of them know I’ve been through hell.
“They stole my childhood,” he said about the government.
And that is something Dawson said he can never forget.
The deadline for former students to submit an application for an abuse claim is Sept. 19. More than 25,000 claims are expected to be granted across Canada.
CAIRS will stay open until 8 p.m. on Sept. 17 and 18, and until midnight on Sept.19. The staff are also available by phone over this weekend. Their number is 667-2247.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at