Residential school survivors given opportunity to record their experiences during Truth, Reconciliation event

WEWEBJIWANG—While last Thursday’s and Friday’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission-funded event for First Nations survivors of residential school experiences was important and well attended, Dr. Pam Williamson, executive director of Noojmowin Teg Health Centre, explained that it was part of a continuum that her organization has been involved with for some time.

A group of the Indian residential school survivors who attended last Thursday’s and Friday’s Truth and Reconcilliation Commission hearing and statement-gathering event agreed to have their photo taken at the noon break on Friday. They are, top row, left, Bill Antoine, Ken Antoine, Bernard Osawamick, John Recollet and Harvey Trudeau. Front row, left, Linda Marie Kagesheongai, Viola Kitchikake, Liza Mosher, Melvina Sutton, Josephine Eshkibok, Ida Embry, Marion McGregor, Mary Jane Charette, Winnifred Trudeau and Elda Young.

Dr. Pam Williamson, executive director of Noojmowin Teg Health Centre, explained that it was part of a continuum that her organization has been involved with for some time.

“We’ve already held two retreats for residential school survivors,” Dr. Williamson told The Expositor. “At these events, people come, mostly speak in the (Ojibwe) language, and talk about their experiences, mostly sitting in circles.”

The two-day event held last week at the Northeast Town Recreation Centre was slightly different, she explained, in that the Noojmowin Teg Health Centre had applied for funding directly to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the organization that had been established following the successful class-action lawsuit on behalf of residential school survivors and Prime Minister Harper’s formal apology to First Nations people for putting school survivors and their ancestors through an experience designed, in part, to deprive them of their culture.

Dr. Williamson pointed out that the recent event was different in that its primary focus had been to give residential school survivors the opportunity of telling their stories of their residential school experiences and of the consequences of these experiences and having themselves audio or videotaped in their story telling.

“The funding we were able to get from the TRC was primarily for this purpose, so that the experiences of Manitoulin people would become part of the national repository of these experiences,” and so become a part of the country’s national, archival and permanent record of people’s experiences.

“We tried to make this event a larger experience for people to come together, to share their stories and to visit,” she added.

As of Friday afternoon, around 15 residential school survivors had taken advantage of the opportunity to have their experiences recorded for the national record. Registration for the TRC-funded event was 61 people on Thursday and 54 on Friday. Support workers, 17 altogether, also attended the event to assist in the sometimes emotional process of recording residential school experiences and, on Friday afternoon, there was the opportunity for people to participate in a story sharing circle. (This part of the event, like the private recordings sessions, was closed to the public.)

Dr. Williamson was pleased with the two-day event and had high praise for her staff in organizing the many-faceted proceedings. She noted that Noojmowin Teg would also continue to organize retreats “if the feedback we get tells us this is what people want and need. That’s how we’ve been dealing with these so far.”

She explained that the organizing committee asked for presentations from several other related agencies for further information for residential school survivors: the Independent Assessment Program (IAP) for people who had already been recognized as residential school survivors and had received compensation under the Common Experience program but who might want to make further claim for abuses they had suffered and the Shingwauk Project, associated with Algoma University, that is archiving alumni information and school records for all of Ontario’s Indian residential schools.

Statement-gatherers were on hand for private statement-taking sessions and as Noojmowin Teg’s traditional coordinator Marjorie Shawanda, who also was the event’s coordinator explained, “there were many people assisting us in this process from all over the Northern region. We help them at their events and they are helping us at ours.” Ms. Shawanda herself had assisted in the statement-taking process at TRC events in Winnipeg (where the program was launched last year), Thunder Bay, Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie.

She told The Expositor that, because this process can be so emotionally difficult for those assisting the residential school survivors in their statement-giving, “I schedule people to do this work for no more than five hours.”

These were the various threads that comprised the two-day event.

The event began at 9 am Thursday morning with an opening song provided by Chi-Geezis, Sheshegwaning First Nation’s young drum group and with a smudge of sage, conducted by Sheshegwaning elder Bill Antoine.

Chris Pheasant of Wikwemikong, master of ceremonies for the two-day event, encouraged participants to think of the smudge as “helping us to focus on the matters of the day.”

Dr. Pam Williamson, executive director of Noojmowin Teg Health Centre echoed this thought in her remarks as she welcomed all the participants with the fervent hope that they “will find this a rewarding experience.”

Chris Pheasant, whose career is in education in his home community of Wikwemikong, introduced himself as a “second-generation residential school survivor.”

“As a young person,” he explained, “I faced lots of challenges,” including the loss of his language (which, he noted, he had always understood but he had to hone his speaking skills as an adult).

“I had the benefit of a western education and I hope that, through your stories, I can better understand my own family’s story,” he added.

As an educator, Mr. Pheasant has observed that the influences of the residential school experiences on students’ ancestors is still being played out. “For the indigenous people of North America, the residential school experience makes it difficult for young people to understand their anger,” he observed.

“As an educator,” he stated plainly in his self-introductory remarks, “it is a challenge to help young people to deal with this legacy.”

Alvin Fiddler, a member of the Muskrat Dam First Nation in Northwestern Ontario works full-time for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mr. Fiddler said that his background, many years before, had been with the network of First Nations and alcohol residential treatment centres and he had visited Wikwemikong’s Rainbow Lodge in this capacity.

Mr. Fiddler recalled the early optimism of the program with which he was involved: “Our goal was to put ourselves out of business in 20 years. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case and this is one of the legacies of residential schools.”

He explained that the objective of the TRC is to reach out to residential school survivors, who live not only in Canada but who have moved to the US and to other countries too. Based on the Common Experience data, there are 90,000 survivors across the country of whom 9,500 to 10,000 are Ontario residents.”

“In December of 2010, when I began,” he went on, “this seemed to be a daunting task. But that’s why we’re here: to collect your stories, and it is an honour to help you.”

“For people who have questions about the statement-gathering process and may be hesitant, they should know this is a voluntary process. We work closely with Health Canada, for theirs is the mandate and they provide support services. They operate this program on a ‘do no harm’ mandate, both for the survivors and their parents,” he added.

Mr. Fiddler gave the further information that, in addition to community TRC events such as the Manitoulin one, there are seven national events being held across Canada.

“And people should know that this (Island event) isn’t the only opportunity to share their stories: if there is a need, we’ll come back. People can also write down their own stories; the audio and videotaping are only two ways of sharing your experiences.”

Donna Kearns spoke on behalf of the Indian Residential Schools Health Support Program, administered by Health Canada, to which Mr. Fiddler had referred to in his remarks.

She explained the program, which offers services including professional counseling, emotional support (provided by Resolution Health Support Workers), cultural support (provided by elders) and assistance with the cost of transportation is available to all residential school survivors and their families (regardless of status or place of residence) who are: eligible to receive (or who are currently receiving) the Common Experience payment; resolving a claim through the Independent Assessment Process, Alternative Dispute Resolution or a court process; or who are participating in Truth and Reconciliation or Commemoration events.

Ms. Kearns noted that the program has been in place since 2003, with a renewal in 2007.

The program is headquartered in the Ottawa area and its toll-free phone number if 1-888-301-6426.

A 24-hour crisis line is also available, “to provide immediate emotional assistance, seven days a week.” It is 1-866-925-4419.

The next presenter was Eric Anderson, community liaison officer for the Independent Assessment Process (IAP).

The IAP is related to and an extension of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) that was concluded in 2006 following Canada’s largest-ever class action settlement. It came into affect in 2007 and provided for Common Experience Payments (CEPs) to all former students who resided at federally-supported Indian residential schools.

The agreement also provided for additional compensation for residential survivors who had suffered sexual or serious physical abuses, or other abuses. People applying for this additional compensation do so through the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) and Mr. Anderson described how former students make their claims.

He stressed that for those seeking compensation for abuses inflicted on them as children in the care of government-supported schools, “the process is not a court: no-one will argue with you that such-and-such an event didn’t take place or try to prove you wrong. With or without evidence, your word will be taken that the event took place,” he said.

To qualify to apply for an IAP award, Mr. Anderson said, “you have to be a former residential school student and/or be someone, when you were under the age of 21, who worked at a residential school where you had been hired by an authorized adult employee of the school.” He gave as examples of this situation when a young person may have been employed at a school for summer work or had helped at a school sports event, but was not a student.

He qualified the offer, explaining that the IAP did not apply if something had taken place away from the school, for example during summer holidays or at home (student-on-student abuse).

Mr. Anderson answered a question and explained that any adult-on-student abuse qualifies, even if it took place away from the school (for example, on a school trip, a hike or an “away” sports event).

Mr. Anderson explained that, if a perpetrator is named in the IAP process, “that person (assuming he/she is still alive) will be notified that they have been identified and are a ‘person of interest’ in the process. He noted that these people will not be charged or arrested but letting them know is part of the process. He explained that he felt this was important because someone named could still be living in the community.

Mr. Anderson stressed that September 19, 2012 is the cut-off date for IAP applications to be submitted. He said while there had been rumours of an extension, he felt it was safest to assume that the program will end on that date in 2012.

People may contact, toll free, 1-866-879-4913 to receive IAP forms and guides, or, locally, by contacting the Noojmowin Teg Health Centre’s office of the traditional coordinator at (705)368-2182. The material can also be downloaded from www.iap-pei.ca.

Mr. Anderson gave some tips about the process and recommended that all IAP claimants retain the services of lawyers.

“If you hire a lawyer and receive compensation, Canada will add an additional 15 percent to your award to help pay your legal fees,” he explained, adding that, “you may ask the IAP adjudicator to review your legal fees to ensure they are fair and don’t exceed 30 percent of your award. (In complex cases, the IAP may fund up to 30 percent of your award towards legal fees.)”

Mr. Anderson further stressed that, “you have the right to fire your lawyer if you don’t feel they’re acting in your best interests and there are some great human rights lawyers out there who do want to help people go through the process.”

He noted that “if you have a lawyer, your lawyer will likely be with you when you’re presenting your case to the IAP adjudicator. Sometimes, a good lawyer can help you get your document collection more quickly. If they’ve been involved with several other cases like yours, they will know the process. (Lawyers do not get paid unless the IAP claim is successful and the claimant is paid.)

If you choose to represent yourself in an IAP claim, there are support officers across the country available to assist with claims. These support officers—employed by Health Canada—do not meet with claimants face-to-face nor go to meetings with the IAP adjudicator. They do not offer advice; rather, they simply answer questions and provide information. They do request information from the claimant about their particular experience and help collect required documents, on claimants’ behalf, as required. (Claimants can switch from support officers to lawyers mid-way through the claim process.)

The issue of the need to make a claim and provide documentation was raised by several of the residential school survivors in the Thursday morning session. “Why are they making the people go through this process again? The government has admitted it was wrong to take children away from their homes and families,” a Wikwemikong woman stated, observing that (the suspected terrorist) Maher Arar got a $10 million settlement. “Why not just do something like this for residential school survivors?”

Mr. Anderson said he agreed with everything that had been said but explained that “the IAP process was in place to expedite things because, otherwise, it could have gone on for another 20 years.”

This is the process: a claimant (or his/her lawyer, on their behalf) submits a claim to the IAP adjudicator’s office. The claim is reviewed and a decision on whether it is to be considered is relayed to the claimant or their lawyer.

If a claim is admitted for consideration, most claims for awards based on sexual or physical abuse follow a ‘standard’ track; there is a ‘complex’ track for more complicated cases; and the claimant may be asked to provide further documentation.

The question as to the need for this process came up again from the audience: “if our word (that something happened to us) is good enough, as you said, why do we need this process?”

Mr. Anderson said that the process has been set up to be as respectful as possible: a hearing will be held in a respectful environment, private and closed to the public, and it can either be held in the claimant’s home community, in Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie or Toronto. If travel is required, expenses are paid for the claimant and for supporters that may accompany the claimant. An interpreter is provided, as required, and the meeting can begin with a traditional prayer or ceremony. There is the opportunity for the claimants to tell their story and the IAP adjudicator is the only person who will ask questions.

Mr. Anderson advised the group to be cautious as to the number of supporters invited to the hearings, or with whom claimants share the outcome, especially if there is a large financial award. “This information, widely dispersed, has caused problems for claimants,” he said, suggesting people should tell their families or friends to keep this information private.

Mr. Anderson spoke about “after care” awards of up to $10,000 and gave as an example a request by a successful IAP claimant that part of their after care award should be spent on helping them visit their old residential school’s site, and this was done.

A man noted that “you (Mr. Anderson) had said people didn’t have to have attended residential school to qualify. What if someone who had attended residential school had been a parent to his children, but not a good parent. What is in the process for the children?”

Mr. Anderson explained that, in a situation like this, “that is where the after care award could come in.”

There was frustration in the room. One residential school survivor, who explained he’d left the school over 50 years ago and had applied for an IAP claim, was waiting for his hearing.

He said his lawyer had been told there would be a hearing last fall, then that it would be in February or March, but it hadn’t happened yet.

“When will it happen,” he asked with evident exasperation. “This year? Next year? I’m not getting any younger!”

Mr. Anderson told the individual he would speak to him privately and find out the details, and perhaps help to expedite the matter. “After 50 plus years, you’ve been waiting long enough,” he agreed.

Mr. Anderson did add that, when a claim has been accepted for consideration but the claimant is unhappy with the award, “you can ask for another adjudicator.” This is also the case if a claim is initially rejected for consideration. “The benchmark is ‘fairness, consistency and transparency’.”

Claimants can also make their claim as a group effort, where there are eight or more people involved. People can apply to be considered for a group claim and, if admitted for consideration, can be funded for support prior to the IAP hearings.

Information on the group claim process is available at www.groupiap@iap-pei.ca. (People first have to be admitted as individual claimants but then can go through the process as a group, if they are admitted.)

On Thursday and Friday, a presentation was made by Ed Sadowski, with the assistance of archivist Krista McCracken, both of Algoma University’s independent Shingwauk Project (residential school archive and research centre.)

The Shingwauk Project began initially as “The Children of Shingwauk,” researching the experiences of the students and survivors of that Anglican-church operated school in Sault Ste. Marie. The project is now representative of the story of the students who attended all of Ontario’s residential schools and advocates on behalf of survivors.

Mr. Sadowski was critical of the current process and of government’s actions in the past.

“Your government, the government of Canada, has interfered in every aspect of this settlement process,” he stated plainly during his Friday morning presentation.

As an example of long-term interference, Mr. Sarawak explained that the federal government had a program of the systematic destruction of many residential school documents that began in 1937 and lasted until 1973.

He said these missing documents make it difficult for residential school survivors to prove they were at residential school at all, and proof of this nature is a prerequisite to any claim being considered.

Shingwauk Project archivist Kristen McCracken had albums of photos and stories from each of Ontario’s Indian residential schools on display and both she and Mr. Sadowski asked those in attendance to look at the books representing their residential schools, particularly trying to identify anyone in group or activity photos, writing the name of anyone they recognized on the photo as a further aid to people making claims and proving that they had been, in fact, at a residential school.

The Shingwauk Project phone number is (705)949-2301. Ms. McCracken’s extension is 4622. Her email address is:Krista.mccracken@algomau.ca in the event that anyone has historical material relating to residential school, especially information that helps identify former students. The Shingwauk Project archives are also on line at www.shingwauk.auc.ca to assist people on identifying photos of individuals they may recognize.

Chris Pheasant, who did an excellent job of moving the flow of information along while adding enough levity to elicit chuckles and laughs, told The Expositor on Friday that, “as a second generation survivor, I’m interested in what my family experienced. As an educator, I hope it will help me understand why some students behave the way they do.”

Looking for positive outcomes, Mr. Pheasant recalled an example set by one of his aunts, who lives in Wikwemikong in South Bay. He explained that he had asked her what she was going to do with her (Common Experience) settlement money (the money that came to all residential school survivors following the resolution of the class action suit and Prime Minister Harper’s apology to First Nations people on behalf of the government of Canada.)

Mr. Pheasant said she told him she was going to use it to go back to school to learn how to write the Ojibwe language properly.

“So she used her Zoonya to improve the language,” he noted, without having to draw attention to the irony that one of the goals of the residential school experience had been to deny First Nations children access to their language and culture.