Residential School Victims Face Further Obstacle

By Chuck Poulsen
Daily Courier [Canada]
November 18, 2006

Natives who were students — prisoners — in residential schools are coming to the end of that long road with one more knotty issue to resolve: lost records.

If compensation is to be made, natives must prove the number of years they were in residence. But for many in the Okanagan who attended schools in Cranbrook, Kamloops and other places, those records, some from as far back the 1930s, have disappeared.

"Both my mother and father were in residential school in Kamloops," said Ray Derickson of the Westbank First Nation. "But when I went to find the records, there were none at all for my father (who was there during the '30s).

I was able to find records for only three years for my mother even though she was there for nine years.

"I think it's time for the government to admit that it's just trying to save money on the payout."

His father, Richard, is dead, but Derickson is hoping that if he can prove his dad attended the Kamloops school, the payout will go to Richard's estate.

The payout, known as the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, has been a long time coming.

Compensation will be $10,000 for the first year in a residential school and $3,000 for each year after. The payments have been held up because of class-action lawsuits in nine court jurisdictions across Canada. The courts in those jurisdictions are now deciding whether the IRSSA is a fair remedy to replace the lawsuits. That hurdle is expected to be cleared by the end of the year.

The government has set aside $1.9 billion to compensate 86,000 natives who attended the church-run schools.

The foundation for setting up the schools came in the 1857 Gradual Civilization Act. One of its principles was to assimilate natives in colonial culture by "taking the Indian out of the Queen's red children."

Students were prisoners, often facing humiliating and brutal discipline as well as sexual abuse. For the better part of 100 years — until the mid-1970s — the federal government operated residential schools that institutionalized aboriginals under the guise of education, tore the children from their families and stripped them of their heritage. By law, children as young as four were taken from their parents without consent. Many who now live in the Okanagan went to Kamloops, which operated from 1893 to 1977.

They were prohibited from speaking their native language or practising non-Christian faiths. The schools were often located well away from the students' home reserves, so the kids didn't see their parents for up to 10 months of the year.

In announcing the compensation package, former justice minister Irwin Cotler called residential schools "the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history."

Hubert George of the Osoyoos band says some of the schools burned down and the enrolment records were destroyed.

"There are quite a few from Westbank and Penticton where their records have gone missing from Kamloops or St. Eugene's in Cranbrook," said George.

George found his records from both the Kamloops and Cranbrook schools, which he attended from 1953 to '63.

George was nine years old when he was taken away to school.

"We went by train from the depot in Penticton," he said. "It was pretty scary because we had never left home and we were always with our parents. We didn't even know why we had to go. We were just told.

"We got to go home in the summer, but that was it. Most of the parents didn't have vehicles and couldn't afford the train."

The Cranbrook school was 21 kilometres from town, so even if parents got to Cranbrook, they might not have had the money to take a cab to the institution. If they did get to the school, they couldn't visit long, said George.

"There were only certain hours — and not very long — when visits were allowed," he said.

George and his friends faced a regime of corporal punishment. On more than one occasion, he was stripped naked, put on a table and whipped in front of the others for speaking his own language.

"One of the guys I knew there ran away," said George. "When they brought him back, the brothers put a dress and panties and a bra on him. When we ate, he was made to sit with the girls. It very dehumanizing."

George said he suspects the incident left his schoolmate scarred for life.

"A while ago, I saw his name on the 10 most wanted list," said George. "There were a lot of charges against him. I said to my wife: 'I can see why he is the way he is because I know what he went through.'

"I was bitter for a long time. I won't go to church. How do they expect me to go to church after what they did to me in the name of religion? Even today, it's very difficult for me to accept what happened."

The compensation program makes special allowance for those who experienced physical and sexual abuse.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, himself a survivor of the schools, says the package is a deal, no matter how inadequate it might be.

"While no amount of money will ever heal the scars, we hope the settlement package will bring comfort and a sense of victory and vindication for the children and grandchildren of survivors as well; for they, too, have suffered and witnessed the effects of the residential school legacy," said Fontaine.

Alvin Dixon of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society in Vancouver estimates records have been lost for five to eight per cent of applicants. His group has offered the government two possible solutions to the problem of lost records.

"We're suggesting that people can get an affidavit from fellow students who know they were there," said Dixon. "Or it could be done just by interviews (of claimants). I think it could be determined whether someone was on a truthful path."

There is an opt-out clause in the package for those who wish to take action through the courts individually. Dixon said few natives would choose that route.

"Many are in poverty," he said, "and an average of 4,000 survivors have died each year since 1998."

The payouts are expected to begin next year.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.