Lessons learned from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement

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The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) hosted a community gathering in Montreal December 4 to hear from Indian residential school survivors and how they have fared since the Canadian government’s settlement agreement in 2006.

Funded by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, it was one of seven such meetings across Canada this fall.

Over the course of two days, the gathering gave survivors a forum to share their personal experiences with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The NCTR will use this information to improve future settlement agreements, as well as to voice concerns that might have been overlooked.

While the compensation package of $2 billion is the largest class action settlement in Canadian history, around $300 million remains in the fund. The NCTR is trying to work out how to make it easier for compensation to be made available to those who need it most.

One of the biggest issues with the implementation of the settlement agreement is that its potential recipients are dispersed across Canada. “Each group has its own specific needs – a one-size-fits-all policy is doomed to fail,” said Kalia Johnston, a research coordinator at the NCTR.

Johnston said that information gaps are the most pressing issue with the implementation of the agreement. So, to hear more voices, the NCTR offered travel bursaries to survivors from distant communities, and future community gatherings will allow survivors to connect via Skype.

Yet some remain unheard. Marginalized groups like the homeless and the incarcerated have been disproportionally affected by residential school experiences, and yet often have the least say in how the settlement agreement should be implemented.

The community gatherings are designed to work out what survivors really need, and where implementation hasn’t worked so well. “Just paying out lump sums to survivors isn’t always that helpful,” Johnston said. For example, when a 2011 deadline to apply for the Common Experience Payment passed, a lack of communication deprived some survivors of their due compensation.

Moreover, the trauma that residential schools caused often has severe intergenerational effects, yet families indirectly affected are not compensated. Some argue that some settlement money should be put into social services that help the community at large instead.

Many survivors expressed frustration that the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was eliminated in 2014, saying that settlement funds could have kept it functioning. Others talked about how some lawyers were exploiting survivors with legal fees.

Despite the numerous issues discussed, the community gathering also helps create a platform for sharing and healing – and to honour and mourn the 4200 children who never returned from residential school.

The group discussed what should be done with the unmarked graves, and if the victims’ bodies should be exhumed and returned to their respective communities. Others expressed pride that survivors were standing up and speaking out, and that the myth that people were treated well in residential schools is being debunked.

“Knowing what happened can help resolve grief,” Johnston said. “But there are still many information gaps to bridge.”


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