The Indian Residential Schools Are Still With Us

In 2010, I interviewed the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, about his many years as a politician. The conclusion of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement negotiations was a few years behind, and I asked Phil for his assessment. What did he think of the agreement?

Never mind that this settlement was, as people like to say, “historic”—at $5-billion and more, the largest court-supervised class action in Canada’s history. Never mind that it had involved dozens of lawyers in simultaneous, multi-city sessions, or that it was front-page news for months and even years running. Indeed, today’s Globe and Mail headline reads “Residential Schools: Bennett puts settlement onus on Catholics.” Who would have thought the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement would be news nearly a full decade after its 2007 roll-out. Maybe Phil. But on that day he shrugged and pulled a face. He was proud of the agreement and said something to the effect that it was the best they were going to get. But there was something wrankling him, and he told me what it was.

Phil had many accomplishments over his career. He listed a few. I couldn’t dissent: he’d been more than a few places, made more than a few waves. Yet inevitably when he’s introduced, he pointed out, it’s the residential schools that everyone mentions, and only the residential schools. Everything else disappeared.

I don’t usually commiserate with politicians, but in this instance I knew exactly how he felt. I’ve written on hundreds of topics over the past three decades, but to the degree I’m known for anything at all, it’s the Indian Residential School System. My articles on residential schools, routinely the most-visited pieces on this blog, are about the only thing I’ve composed that could be called “evergreen.” My book on residential schools is by far my most successful book, by which I mean it’s the book that people actually read, more than any other of mine.

I’m not complaining. I am, however, registering genuine surprise. I never expected the article I wrote in May 2002, for the Globe and Mail, to be at the top of the most-read list in May 2016. In the meanwhile I’ve written nearly a thousand essays that have dropped (as they do, for most writers of current event) into the black hole of yesterday. Perhaps I should have expected this. Twenty years ago I’d learned to assert that, just as the Indian residential schools had done decades worth of damage, it would take decades to heal and restitute. Canada may wish to be done with its residential school history, but history is not done with Canada. Not even close.

Today’s Globe and Mail headline refers to the amounts negotiated in Schedule 0-3 of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, by the Corporation for the Catholic Entities, Parties to the IRSSA (or CCEPIRSSA). Why then an “onus”? The short answer is that the (in my estimation) badly-written agreement committed the Catholic Entities to the “best effort” fund-raising of a $25-million “Canada-Wide Campaign.” It didn’t pan out, according to lawyers for the CCEPIRSSA. So the federal government released the Catholic Entities, who ran ~65% of the residential schools, from this settlement obligation.

I mention the badly-written bit because the current mess was created by the agreement, insofar as it is a vaguely-composed document with no clear timelines or enforcements. And what exactly constitutes a “best effort”? Who decides? These and many other questions are not answered by Schedule 0-3, which bears all the evidence of having been drafted by junior lawyers while, elsewhere, the bulk of the effort went into the Common Experience Payment.

All of this makes me wonder where we’ll be five years from now. Or ten, or twenty. With some confidence, I can say that the Indian residential schools will probably be with us. The question is, will we be inching closer to restitution, or slinking yet further away?

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