People who survived abuse at federal Indian day schools may need their communities’ support in submitting claims for compensation.
Day schools were similar to residential schools, except they were typically situated close to Indigenous communities and the children forced to attend were able to return home at the end of each day. Nevertheless, day schools and residential schools generally shared the goal of assimilating children and destroying First Nations languages and cultures.
A class-action lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of survivors of abuse at the day schools was launched in 2009, and a settlement was reached last year. Now, survivors can file a claim to receive a portion of the settlement; from $10,000 to $200,000, depending on the abuse they faced.
The application form required to submit a claim is rigorous, covering painful, difficult subject matter while requiring extensive supporting documents and materials. This is a huge barrier to many potential claimants, said Brin Friend, a program co-ordinator with the Terrace Women’s Resource Centre Society who has helped three people complete the application form.
The form divides emotional, physical and sexual abuse into five levels of severity, and then associates a settlement dollar value to each level ($50,000 for level 3, $100,000 for level 4, etc.). Higher levels require more supporting documentation, such as names and positions of abusers, medical or dental records, and evidence of school attendance.
But many applicants don’t have access to that kind supporting documentation, Friend said.
“A lot of individuals didn’t keep documentation because it wasn’t part of their cultural upbringing, they weren’t aware that it was going to be important, or they fled in a state of emergency so they didn’t have time to bring it with them,” she said. “Some individuals just never received that information.”
The application form does contain another option if applicants don’t have all the required documentation: instead, they can have the form signed by a professional guarantor such as a notary public, an elected official, or another professional such as a doctor or lawyer. Most of those professions typically charge a fee to sign any documents, and cost can also be a barrier for applicants, Friend said.
“The elected official technically is the cheapest because they don’t have a mandate to have to charge people [for services],” she said.
That’s why she enlisted the help of Taylor Bachrach, MP for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, in completing the three applications she has worked on thus far. Bachrach signed the three applications at the Terrace Women’s Resource Centre on July 22.
“It’s a real honour,” he said. “The settlement is a step that’s long overdue, and an important part of reconciliation … if there’s a small role that I can play in removing barriers to claimants participating in the process and getting settlements, then, like I said, it’s an honour to be part of.”
Friend said she reached out to other local elected officials, none of whom committed to assisting on the applications, though she noted that none refused to help either.
“We’ve had, I wouldn’t say an outright ‘no,’ but maybe a lack of comfort, or a few individuals who have said they will get back to us because they’re not sure if they’re qualified and they would like to check on their own, rather than just taking my word for it and I totally respect that,” she said, adding that it is ironic that Bachrach was the one who did help, considering he lives in Smithers and is the “least local” elected official she reached out to.
The form states that any elected official can act as guarantor, including elected members of First Nations governments.
Friend first learned about the claim application form when one of the Terrace Women’s Resource Centre’s regular clients asked for help with the form. The Centre regularly provides literacy assistance.
“Literacy is a barrier for many of the applicants of this process,” she said.
The claim application process will be open until July 13, 2022. Friend said she has already received another inquiry from someone wanting assistance with the application form and she believes there will be even more people in the community who need assistance — more than the Terrace Women’s Resource Centre will be able to help, even though they wish they could.
“Anyone can come in and access our services,” she said. “We are here to help, but plates all around are very full.”
She said she has reached out to other organizations that assist community members and offered to advise workers at those organizations.
“It doesn’t really matter what sort of area they’re operating from, but we’re willing to support workers and help teach other community members how to support people in the [day school claim] process,” she said. “We would like to see more trauma-informed practitioners, more counsellors or clinicians, people who have that front-line essential service training, it would be nice to see them supporting individuals in the process.”
Gowling WLG, the law firm administrating the claims process, was offering in-community assistance sessions earlier this year, but it cancelled the remaining physical sessions when the pandemic struck and instead is offering Zoom sessions. More information on the Zoom sessions can be found at indiandayschools.com/en/contact/presentations/
Friend said that she may seek out additional training for herself if she feels her assistance role growing larger.
“It is a scary process. It is an intense process. I myself, if I’m going to take this on in a more major capacity, feel that I need more training. It’s a huge thing, on so many levels,” she said.