80,000 Native Canadians to Be Compensated for School Abuse

New York Times, - Thursday, April 27, 2006

In a long delayed conclusion to a dark chapter of Canadian history, negotiators have reached an agreement to compensate 80,000 Native Canadians who attended a government-financed school system where many suffered physical and sexual abuse.

The widespread incidence of alcoholism, family violence and incest in many Native Canadian communities has long been linked to the experiences of generations who attended the so-called residential schools, which were dedicated to forced assimilation and operated for more than a century, until the 1980's.

Typically, government agents forced Inuit, Cree and other children to leave their parents and attend the schools, where they were harshly punished for speaking their own languages or practicing their religions.

Negotiators representing the government, native peoples and several churches that administered the schools agreed that nearly $2 billion would be paid out in damages. Payments are set to begin next year, but will possibly be accelerated for the elderly and the sick.

The accord, which negotiators called one of the largest damage settlements in Canada's history, needs cabinet and court approval, but that is considered a formality.

Jim Prentice, the Indian affairs and northern development minister, announced the agreement without fanfare on the floor of the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon. There was no official apology, although the federal government had already admitted that sexual and physical abuse in the schools was widespread.

The residential schools have long been a source of embarrassment to Canadians, and the announcement of the agreement received little news media attention.

But Native Canadian leaders reacted with excitement over the culmination of years of painful negotiations and government efforts to fight the litigation that cost $80 million.

"We're extremely pleased," said Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, an Ojibwe speaker and one of the negotiators. He attended two Manitoba residential schools where he says he suffered sexual and physical abuse. "It's about symbolic recognition of the loss of languages and cultures."

He added that he was still hopeful that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would apologize for the schools. A former minister of Indian affairs did apologize in 1998 but Native Canadian leaders have long sought an apology from a prime minister.

The agreement allots payments of about $20,000 to the 80,000 former students. It will also provide about $120 million for a foundation that will promote traditional native healing therapies, as well as a "truth and reconciliation" commission that will hear testimony from victims. Perpetrators also may come forward if they want to confess, but Kathleen Mahoney, one of the negotiators, said they would not be granted amnesty.

The Presbyterian, Anglican, United and Roman Catholic Churches have agreed to open their archives so that documents relating to the schools they ran can be included in a national archive devoted to the residential school experience.

About 1,500 residential school victims have received court compensation over the last 12 years, about one in 10 who filed claims. The government has also distributed hundreds of small out-of-court settlements.

In recent years the federal government tried to make amends by forming the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, an agency that studied the legacy of the residential schools.

There has been a cultural renaissance of sorts in many of the communities, with public schools teaching languages and dance to revive pride and identity. Nevertheless, joblessness and poverty are forcing many young Native Canadians to move to the cities, where there are more economic opportunities.

Edition: Late Edition - Final
Section: Foreign Desk
Page: 12
Page Column: 1