Building a Foundation for the Sixties Scoop Survivors

My personal thoughts on how it should be done

✎  Wayne K. Spear | November 30, 2017 • Current Events

THIS WEEK I participated in a discussion about the agency that will manage the $50 million fund negotiated as part of the Sixties Scoop class action settlement. The substance of that meeting, and the information provided in preparation for it, was shared with me in confidence. The purpose of this article is to reflect on what this agency might look like and what it might do, from my perspective as someone who has been involved in work of this nature. The people I was invited to meet with are in the initial stage of building the organization that will receive and manage the settlement funds. I was there as someone with experience and expertise in organizational development, in particular Indigenous organizations.

At the time I write this there is an agreement-in-principle awaiting the approval of the court. There are some criticisms of the AIP, one being that it doesn’t include Métis. My feeling, and this is based upon nothing but speculation and some experience with the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, or IRSSA, is that the AIP will receive court approval and that outstanding concerns (such as redress for the Métis) will be taken up in a separate effort. As it happens I found myself sitting next to the lawyer who represents the Métis, a fellow named Tony Merchant, who I first came across during the IRSSA years. This settlement took a lot longer to reach than the residential school agreement did. But the finish-line is near, owing to the sustained work of many people, some of whom I remember talking to more than a decade ago on this very subject. I also met the lawyer who created and managed the class action, and he seemed to me a very agreeable as well as decent and principled fellow.

Everything I have written to this point is public knowledge, which is to say non-confidential, and readily available. Anyone who wants to get information of the kind I’ve presented can go to the website and find it. If you have never created a national organization from scratch then you can only imagine what it is like to do so. There are a thousand divergent considerations, many of them critical, and pitfalls await you at every turn. A single error made at the outset can doom everything. In the current case there is the additional fact that a good many angry and traumatized people are expecting swift remedies, which in my opinion they deserve, and it won’t do to not earn their trust. The work in short is heavy and delicate and complex beyond description.

Fifty million dollars sounds like a lot of money, and compared to a household budget it is, but when you confront the needs of Indigenous people you realize what a pittance this amount is. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation had 350 million dollars yet we turned away many dozens of communities and found ourselves unable to support worthy and credible proposals totalling hundreds of millions of dollars. For generations, Indigenous people have been abused and impoverished and have had their inner lives submitted to the attentions of a paternalistic and sometimes hostile state. There is no deprivation nor depravity we haven’t experienced from the hands of the authorities, and for this reason it is absurd to think a few hundred millions of dollars, spent over a few years, will turn the night into day.

In my opinion, whatever the interim board eventually build should have a life beyond a few years. Governments only think in months and at most a term of office, but the work of restitution is a work of decades if not of generations. Getting the politicians to accept the logical conclusions that follow from this is in my experience a work of supreme difficulty. Partly the problem is that the politicians and bureaucrats are constrained by rules and by the nature of the bureaucracy itself, so that even when they want to do what they know to be right they are unable. Then there are the political considerations, not least of which is the inevitable backlash whenever Indians are perceived as getting favours from the taxpayer. Successive auditor generals have made it likely there will never again be an Aboriginal Healing Foundation type of agency, despite the universal opinion that it was a good and successful model. Whatever its merits, the AHF was an arms-length delegated authority with a degree of independence, something that auditor generals look down upon. The idea that Indians might take possession of a considerable pot of money and with some autonomy is the kind of thing that keeps the Treasury Board and the Privy Council awake at night, and as a matter of course they are dead-set against it.

The agency should be governed by Indigenous people. This may seem an obvious and uncontroversial point but it’s worth emphasizing. Already words have been put on paper, by the non-Indigenous lawyers who are working out the terms of a settlement. Next these same lawyers will presumably make decisions about the kind of an agency they are going to create, and only then will they turn it over to the people who will run it. Along the way there will be consultation, which is fine and good but in itself insufficient for any agency calling itself Indigenous. Sooner rather than later competent and ethical Indigenous community people, preferably people who are not driven by the needs of their ego, should be brought in. And the lawyers and consultants (like me) should get out of their way and let them lead.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls National Inquiry is a mess. Another mess, in the form of a national Indigenous agency seeded by taxpayer dollars, will do damage of a kind it is unpleasant to contemplate. The victims of abuse would be victimized once again, and a generation of Canadians would be provided ample evidence that native people are incompetent and probably corrupt as well. There would be calls for a reigning-in of every kind of program or service, and it would be difficult for politicians to resist, even if they wanted to do so. Every effort should be made to ensure that the Sixties Scoop foundation is governed and staffed by competent and reliable people and not by well-connected Liberal loyalists.

This agency will have to work very hard to develop relationships, and it will have to be open and candid in its communication. It will only have money to do a small number of things, for a limited number of people, and excessive expectations are certain to arise. I have often said it is better to give bad news that you can back up than it is to give pleasant news you can’t, and this agency is going to have to give bad news. People will forgive you for telling them a truth they would have preferred not to be true, but they will not forgive you for misleading them. The currency of our world is trust. Every day you are building up or else depleting your most precious asset.

An organization is people and systems. The critical thing now is to seek out and recruit the right people, which is to say the people who will build the right systems and perform the right tasks in the right way. If this is not done then no amount of money is going to make a positive difference. No consultant and no intervention will help if the first people through the door can’t or won’t understand, and build relationships with, the people they are meant to serve. The people of the Sixties Scoop have had unique experiences, and their needs are likewise. It’s no small thing to have lived in this world not knowing what many of us take for granted—who we are, where we have come from, where we belong, and the like. Already people are looking for information about the Sixties Scoop foundation, or whatever it will be called, as well as for opportunities to be involved in its creation. A great many things were discussed at the meeting, and the ten individuals present (including me) all felt the pressure to set things in motion so that the people could be heard and their needs answered. There are no shortcuts when it comes to building relationships, and if the right people can be brought into the fold, to do the right things in the right way, I trust that no shortcuts will be taken.