Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, North America

RIGHTS: Native Canadians to Get 1.7 Billion for School Abuse

Howard Williams

OTTAWA, Nov 23 2005 (IPS) - The Canadian government announced Wednesday an “agreement in principle” to pay 1.7 billion dollars to tens of thousands of Canada’s indigenous peoples who were physically and sexually abused in government-financed, largely church-run “residential schools”.

The residential schools were the government’s idea at the time as the best way to “assimilate” native Canadians into the largely European lifestyle and culture of modern Canada. But the scheme turned out to be a disaster, with many credible reports of native children – Indians and Inuit – being sexually and physically abused by teachers and staff.

Children were even punished with severe beatings when caught speaking in their native languages, even when it was in conversation with their own siblings. Hundreds of stories have emerged of native families being tricked into giving up their children and even cases of children being forcibly kidnapped by government or church agents.

The settlement was announced at a hastily arranged press conference led by Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan and Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents communities on government-recognised reserves from which the children were taken to be assimilated.

It was a particularly emotional moment for Fontaine, 60, who has revealed that he was a victim of both sexual and physical abuse at a residential school.

Fontaine told reporters: “While no amount of money will ever heal the emotional scars, this settlement package will contribute to the journey on the path to healing – not only for residential school survivors but for their children and grandchildren. It’s a wonderful day.”

He said the settlement was the “largest and most comprehensive” of its kind in Canadian history.

Nevertheless, the agreement is still subject to approval by federal courts, which are currently studying hundreds of individual and some class-action cases against the federal government and the churches involved in running the now-discredited residential schools.

Wednesday’s package, if confirmed by the courts, will provide payments to some 86,000 former students of the schools.

McLellan said that each former residential school student will be entitled to 8,500 dollars plus 2,560 dollars for each year spent in the residential school system. Individuals will receive up to 25,000 dollars each, depending on how long they were in the system.

Payments to older victims of the abuse will be streamlined with an immediate downpayment of 6,800 dollars to each ex-student 65 years or older. Fontaine said this was an important element of the package because the average age of the victims was now 60.

The agreement also calls for further action on what McLellan called “a truth and reconciliation” process.

“Bringing closure to this chapter of our history lies at the very heart of reconciliation,” she said. “I am pleased to announce that we have made good on our shared resolve to deliver what I firmly believe will be a fair and lasting resolution of the Indian school legacy.”

But the agreement does not include one demand made by the native groups – that the federal government actually apologise for the abuse.

Asked why not, McLellan said it was still on the table.

She hinted it might come as soon as this week when Prime Minister Paul Martin and the premiers of Canada’s 10 provinces and three northern territories meet in Kelowna, British Columbia, with native leaders – including Fontaine.

“Quite clearly,” said McLellan, “the national chief (Fontaine) and the prime minister may wish to discuss other issues in relation to certain aspects of the residential school experience.”

Fontaine said the package covers “decades in time, innumerable events and countless injuries to First Nations individuals and communities”.

Among others at the joint press conference was federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, a noted former civil rights lawyer and advocate before he entered politics. Cotler said the decision to house young Canadians in residential schools was “the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history”.

The schools were launched under British authority, before Canada became an independent nation in 1867, but Ottawa continued to finance the schools until as recently as the 1970s. They are now all closed.

The 106-million-dollar “truth and reconciliation” process will provide funding for five years for the Aboriginal Healing foundation and “truth and reconciliation” gatherings.

But victims accepting compensation will waive their rights to sue either the federal government or the churches that ran the schools.

The money announced at Wednesday’s press conference will be additional to a further series of grants expected to be announced at this week’s meeting in Kelowna between Canadian and native leaders.

According to unconfirmed reports in Ottawa, federal and provincial leaders are expected to agree to a 10-year programme, costing more than 3.4 billion dollars, to improve health, education and sanitation on Indian reserves and some “improvement programmes” for natives who have moved away from recognised reserves or lost their right to live on those reserves.

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