Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 28, 2005
Aboriginal settlement welcomed
Church leaders applaud $2 billion for residential school victims
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Church leaders have heralded as historic a $2-billion package aimed at compensating tens of thousands of Aboriginal people who were forced into residential schools.
"I agree with the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine that this truly is a historic moment, a moment for the ages for sure," said Providence Sister Gloria Keylor, spokesperson for a coalition of 41 religious communities with a stake in the residential schools debacle.
"I think this is a fair package. I think it is a package that will bring closure to the past. That's our prayer, that this will bring closure to the past and allow us to open a new door to the future."
Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan made the announcement during a Nov. 23 news conference with native leaders. She was flanked by other federal cabinet ministers and abuse survivors, including Grand Chief Phil Fontaine.
"It's a wonderful day," said Fontaine, speaking of the years of negotiations that led to the agreement in principle. "I know that every moment has been worthwhile. Justice has prevailed."
The proposed settlement - which must be approved by the courts because of the number of outstanding lawsuits over the issue - is open to roughly 86,000 former students.
Under the settlement, each eligible former student is entitled to $10,000 as well as $3,000 for each year spent in a residential school.
The average age of those who attended residential schools is now 60. The Nov. 23 deal says former students over age 65 can apply for a fast-track advance payment of $8,000.
The deal says those who take the compensation payments would release the government and the churches who ran the schools from further legal liability, except in cases of sexual assault or serious physical abuse.
In addition to the lump-sum settlement offer, the package also includes five-year funding for the Aboriginal Health Foundation totaling $125 million as well as measures aimed to aid those who suffered sexual abuse while in residential schools.
The plan also pledges $60 million for a "truth and reconciliation process" which is intended to promote public education and awareness about residential schools and the impact they had on former students and their families.
An additional $10 million will go toward a commemoration program, with the government continuing to provide funding for commemorative initiatives.
"All I can say is that Phil Fontaine gave incredible leadership to this whole process and I just find that the Hon. Frank Iacobucci demonstrated his capacity to bring everything together," Keylor said. "Mario Dion (McLellan's deputy minister on the residential school issue) has also been very, very good to the process."
Keylor said the 41 Catholic groups (religious orders and dioceses) she represents will contribute more than $50 million to set up programs for healing and reconciliation. The figure is part of a proposal the Catholic groups sent to Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan in March.
Former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, who was appointed in May to help Ottawa develop a plan to compensate victims and avoid the costly lawsuits facing the courts, accepted the proposal from the religious groups completely, Keylor noted.
The Catholic groups will not be on the hook to pay a portion of the $10,000 compensation to every residential school survivor.
But they will contribute $29 million in cash and real property and $25 million in "in-kind" contributions for programs such as Returning to the Spirit, programs on self-esteem, programs for healthy moms and healthy babies, and other works the groups do in Aboriginal communities.
They have also agreed to launch a national campaign for healing and reconciliation with a fundraising target of $25 million.
McLellan originally failed to acknowledge the group's proposal, but did so recently following an Oct. 24 WCR story on the issue.
"Our proposal is part of the final package (but) the money we are giving is above and beyond what the federal government is giving," Keylor said, noting no decision has yet been made on what kind of healing and reconciliation programs will be put into place.
The healing and reconciliation process is aimed at bringing closure to the past, the Providence sister stressed. "There is nothing we can do about the past but everything we do today will have an influence on the future."
The federal package stopped short of offering a formal apology to those affected, even though Justice Minister Irwin Cotler called the residential school scandal "the single most disgraceful, harmful and racist act in our history."
Keylor said the churches also learned their lesson. "Certainly we recognize that the residential school policy was a flawed policy," she said. "And like Canadian citizens all across Canada, I think we learn that this is never to be repeated, that we can never, ever attempt to assimilate anyone."
Residential schools predated Confederation and were run as a joint venture between the government and a number of religious organizations. The schools were located in nearly every province and territory except Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
About 130 schools existed over time, and while most Indian residential schools ceased to operate by the mid-1970s, the last federally-run school in Canada closed in 1996.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples later heard numerous horror stories from people forced to attend the schools. The issue later became a big part of the commission's report, which was released 1996.
Saskatoon lawyer Rod Donlevy, who represented the 41 Catholic groups in the negotiations, said that characterizing everything about residential schools as bad is hurtful to the men and women who ran the schools.
"When you spend 40 or 50 years taking care of kids and the accusations and the premise that everything was bad about it, it's pretty hurtful to some of the 70, 80 and 90-year-old sisters, priests and brothers," he said.
"I think the sisters and the priests did the best that they could with what they had and in the understanding of the times," he said. "There was no malice in the hearts of the religious. They thought they were doing what was best for the former students.
"A lot of them have really close relations with former students today," he said.
(with files from Deborah Gyapong of Canadian Catholic News)