In the next few months, compensation cheques for former First Nation students who attended residential schools will start to roll into the Mount Currie community as part of the Canada-wide Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.
But for many former students, the settlement represents much more than money in the bank.
Some see it as closure to the horrific experiences they endured at these schools, which were run by churches and funded by the federal government from 1870 to the mid-1970s to “take the Indian out of the Indian”, as former grand chief Matthew Coon Come once said. For others, the settlement has resurrected memories of physical and sexual abuse that have been suppressed for decades.
“Some of them came and sat in my office and in 20 seconds they were just in tears, because it is something more to them than just a piece of paper,” said Frank Wallace, a drug and alcohol counsellor in Mount Currie who has been working with many former students on the settlement applications.
“It is a scary thing for them to finally let it out of the bag. We have to be very aware that they are very sensitive in dealing with it. And we have to deal with them the best we know how to get them to start to live today without having to cry every night or sit at home worried,” he said.
The Indian Residential School Settlement is the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. It involves $1.9 billion that the government is making available in lump-sum payments to former students in recognition of the horrific experiences endured while attending these schools.
Each survivor who applies will receive $10,000 for the first year they attended, and $3,000 for every subsequent year. The average payment is expected to be around $28,000.
Wallace, who also attended a residential school, said prior to the agreement most survivors did not openly talk about their experiences.
“They’ve told family members or friends briefly, okay. But when questioned somewhat, they say, ‘Oh I told my brother,’ or ‘I told my husband’. That was it. And nothing more was said. Because they just don’t want anybody else to know,” said Wallace.
“They are reluctant to come into my office, because they don’t want to be heard. They don’t want their story out there. But some of them have come forward and told their stories of their sexual abuse and other traumas,” he said, adding that some survivors are too afraid to fill out the paper work.