Yvonne Smarch knows money can’t erase the scars she bears decades after attending residential school.
“It’s like the devil came upon us and did something really bad to us and it’s something to be ashamed of and that shame stays with us for the rest of our lives,” said Smarch, an Interagency for Residential Schools worker.
“If you were given $1 million, that still wouldn’t heal your wounds and the hurt and pain that you’ve gone through.”
This week, Smarch and other First Nations frontline workers gathered at the Council of Yukon First Nations in Whitehorse.
The goal was to develop a support network to help guide residential school survivors who are beginning to receive compensation payments from Ottawa.
Nine Supreme Court judges have, in principle, approved the settlement.
As a result, advance payments of $8,000, totaling $74.8 million, have been issued to 13,400 First Nation elders across the country.
Because of their age, the elders are the first to receive payments.
“What I really like about this particular conference is that it is involving people from victim services. I thank them for being here, the RCMP for being here — I thank them from the bottom of my heart today that they’re there to help us,” said Smarch.
To advise the frontline workers on how to prevent financial elder abuse in the communities, representatives from the Yukon government’s crime-prevention and adult-protection agencies, the RCMP, the Justice department Health Canada, Kwanlin Dun First Nation and Skookum Jim’s Friendship Centre attended the conference.
Financial advisers were also on hand.
“That’s what we’ve seen so far; the kids will take advantage of the grandparents and say, ‘Well, grandpa, we need money for this.’ Of course, the grandfather will give them the pin number if they have a card; they have no clue about stuff like that.”
The children take advantage of it and then the elders wonder why they don’t have any money left, said Roger Ellis, an Indian Residential School Society emotional support worker.
Ellis also said that many elders are suffering from abuse they inflict upon themselves.
“Within a month of getting their money, some of them died — (overdosed) on drugs and stuff, that kind of abuse they’ve done to themselves,” he said.
The hardest thing about coming into this money is first speaking up and making a claim, said both Smarch and Ellis.
Taking that first step into a lawyer’s office can be very traumatic for a residential school survivor because they know they will have to tell their story, sometimes for the very first time.
“It’s healing in itself, just stepping through the door knowing that this is where you’re going to tell your story for the first time,” said Smarch.
“Even these lawyers need support after they’ve heard our stories. Just putting that foot in that lawyer’s door, you just want to go away.”
After consulting a lawyer to get on the list to receive the settlement, the next steps are healing ones: healing their children and the community.
“Yeah, money would never do it,” said Ellis. “However, with some people it seems to provide a little bit of a closure to it and then with the government’s coming forward and stating that they were sorry that puts a little bit more closure on it. But a lot of them don’t seem to get full closure.”
Only 85 per cent of residential school survivors are expected to receive their compensation through either the Common Experience Settlement (which provides the individual with a sum of $10,000 and then $3,000 for each additional year they were forced to stay at a residential school) or through a private lawsuit against the government.
The process for settlement payments for younger generations of survivors is expected to get underway sometime in the fall.
“The ones that are on the street, I can’t see them coming forward,” said Ellis.
“I’ve talked to a few of them and a lot of them don’t want nothing to do with it — they’re not ready to deal with it or they’re too afraid to.
“They’d just rather let it go and be in the streets.
“They’ve got that don’t-care attitude and have had for 40 or 50 years, so why change now?
“That’s sad to see and hear, but we keep talking to them and we don’t give up on them — there’re always hope and we always let them know that.”
The pain that residential school survivors carry seems to extend to their children.
Growing up without parental guidance, they never learned to express affection and that lack of expression — that lack of a simple hug — has had profound effects on the generation directly following the residential school survivors, said Nyla Klugie an Indian Residential School committee member.
“Our parents have gone through so much trauma that they don’t know how to communicate; they don’t know how to nurture their children and say, ‘I love you’ or hug you,” said Klugie.
“They never had the parenting skills so a lot of time you wondered if you did something wrong but it was that fear, that fear of love.
“That love was taken away from them at such a young age and they were abandoned and they looked for their parents to come get them and sometimes they were taken so far away that their parents couldn’t come visit them.
“Those things were really traumatic events.”
Those events will never be fully understood by the children of the survivors or the outside world.
“Do we understand them, do we understand where they’re really coming from?” said Smarch.
“Do we know what really happened to these people?
“There’s a lot of hidden stories out there, and they’re not going to tell you until they’re ready, and that may never happen, but the bottom line is that life goes on for a lot of us; we have to be strong.”