Canada tries to heal scars of racist past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am

Payouts offered to aboriginal children, but not all are willing to forgive brutal schools, writes Wency Leung

One of Ruby-Marie Dennis' most vivid childhood memories is of receiving a severe beating by a nun who was determined to make her cry. Ms Dennis, 54, was only about seven years old at the time, and like thousands of aboriginal Canadians, she had been separated from her family at the age of five and forced into a remote, government-funded Indian residential school run by the Catholic Church.

Ms Dennis recalls earning the punishment by refusing to eat a meal of slop. After she was made to sit in front of her untouched bowl for several hours, the school's officials dragged her to receive a lashing for her insolence.

'They said, 'We're going to make you cry',' Ms Dennis says, recounting that she was made to kneel on the floor and stretch her palms out to be strapped. 'I was thinking, 'I'm not going to cry. You're not going to break me'.'

The strap came down on her palms again and again until they were swollen and bleeding, yet Ms Dennis refused to cry. Her tormentors then began lashing her bottom until it, too, was marked with welts, yet still her eyes remained dry. Frustrated by the child's stubbornness, one nun brought out a wooden yardstick and repeatedly struck her with it. 'By then, she was just using all her might to hit me,' Ms Dennis recalls.

The injustice of the beating infuriated her. With each strike, Ms Dennis' anger grew until finally, she whirled around, wrestled the yardstick from the nun and returned the assault. 'I just lost it, I guess,' she says, noting that her retribution was short-lived. 'Then, I got more punished.'

She says countless other painful incidents followed, many of which she found too upsetting to recall.

Today, the Canadian government is hoping, once and for all, to settle the injustices suffered by Ms Dennis and other survivors of the country's now-defunct Indian residential school system.

Late last month, the government began implementing a landmark C$1.9 billion (HK$14.8 billion) settlement agreement that would compensate an estimated 80,000 former students for the hardships they endured while forcibly removed from their homes. In exchange, the former students would forfeit their right to sue the government and the various churches that administered about 130 mandatory Indian residential schools, which operated throughout the country between the 1870s and 1970s.

Under the agreement, surviving former students can apply for payments of C$10,000, plus C$3,000 for each year of residence beyond their first year.

Each person who applies for a share of the settlement is expected to receive an average payment of C$28,000, starting this month.

It is Canada's largest-ever class-action settlement, heralded by its architects as a turning point and an indication that the country is determined to right past wrongs. But it's not without its critics. Last year, Canada offered a formal apology and began handing out redress payments of about C$20,000 to its Chinese citizens, who paid a discriminatory head tax to enter the country between 1885 and 1923.

This latest settlement is another step for Canada to make amends for its racist past, says Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents aboriginal citizens across Canada.

'At last, justice will be served for those who have suffered a long and often painful journey through the residential schools experience,' says Mr Fontaine, who helped negotiate the settlement.

Not all students of residential school had negative experiences, and some maintain the schools provided them with education and opportunities they would not have otherwise received. But other former students have claimed they were physically and sexually abused, forcibly confined, split from their families, and stripped of their culture and language.

Unless they had opted out of the common settlement agreement before the August deadline, however, none may now take the government, churches or individual former school officials to court, regardless of whether they apply to receive a payout or not, says Valerie Hache, media relations coordinator for Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada, the government department responsible for implementing the settlement.

'They kind of lose their right, if I can say that, to pursue the government,' Ms Hache says. Only 201 people had opted out of the agreement, she says.

Ms Dennis, a crisis worker and aboriginal elder in Vancouver, says many residential school survivors have avoided thinking about the settlement altogether, as they hoped to avoid conjuring up traumatic memories. Thus, by not opting out, they have not only lost the right to sue, but they can't bring themselves to apply for a share of the payout either.

'I think a lot of people went through a lot of things and they just don't want to remember those things,' she says.

She has neither opted out nor applied for a payment.

Ms Dennis says that since she spent more than a decade in the residential school system, she is eligible to receive up to C$46,000.

But, she says, the pain of those years cannot be fixed with money. Traumatised by her school experiences, Ms Dennis went on to battle alcohol and drug addictions for decades, and at one point wound up living in the alleys of Vancouver's notorious, drug-infested Downtown Eastside.

Only in recent years has she managed to reunite with some of her 17 brothers and sisters, and has finally got her life on track.

'My life is worth a hell of a lot more than C$46,000,' she says. 'You never can get that back. You can never pay for the damage done.'

She says she will consult a lawyer about her options. More than money, she says, she wants a formal apology from the government, which has yet to be given, and the ability to feel forgiveness, to let go of the anger and resentment that she still feels.

Like many other aboriginal elders, Ms Dennis worries about the potential problems that massive injections of cash from the settlement will bring to impoverished aboriginal communities. Canada's aboriginal communities struggle with high rates of poverty, addictions and suicide. She worries that some may misuse their payouts, or be preyed upon by scam artists and opportunists.

'Some elders have now received their money, and they've never seen that kind of money before really in their life,' she says.

At the government department, Ms Hache says working groups have been established to help communities deal with the large payouts of cash.

'There are lots of things in place to provide information and help to former students who feel they might need this help,' she says. 'We're confident former students will use their money wisely ... At the same time, that's their [own] money.'

A formal apology from the government, however, may be a long time coming.

Kent Brant, spokesman for a government-appointed Truth and Reconciliation Commission responsible for looking into the residential school system, says the government has given no indication it will apologise, nor has it offered any explanation.

'We don't know why' the government has not apologised, he says. 'We don't know if in the future there is going to be [an apology].'

For Ms Dennis, the government's failure to apologise undermines its attempt at real redress. And even if she eventually does receive an apology, she says, she must still settle the inner turmoil brought on by her school years.

'You can forgive someone,' she says, 'but it doesn't mean you forget.'