What a long, strange trip it’s been. And it ain’t over by a long shot.
Remember the illusory euphoria of last June? Remember the national apology to the survivors – and the Canadian people – for native residential schools delivered in the Canadian House of Commons by Prime Minister Harper? Remember the heads of various national Indigenous organizations sitting in the centre, along with one or two residential school survivors?
Why illusory? Because even the survivors said back then that words were cheap. They wanted to see if the federal government would act – actually do something – to begin the reversal of the awful legacy of that period in history. What they got instead was a soap opera, and a failed attempt by Harper to convince the majority of Canadians that he really was a nice guy, and that his party meant to do right and well by Indigenous peoples.
Shortly before the apology in mid-June, the federal government appointed Justice Harry Laforme, an Ontario judge, to the truth and reconciliation commission it had begun to set up. But even before the apology, Laforme was muttering about the connivance of some people, in some sectors. Later, he complained publicly that he was struggling against pressure from both the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). He said both were trying to influence himself and the work of Canada’s truth and reconciliation commission on Indian residential schools.
Then Laforme resigned, suddenly, citing differences with his co-commissioners; a lawyer from British Columbia named Jane Brewin Morley, and a nurse from Algonquin Territory at Kitigan Zibi, Quebec, Claudette Dumont-Smith. Some news reports portrayed it as a fundamental difference in approach with both women pushing for “reconciliation” while Laforme wanted “truth.” Other reports decribed a power play with both women refusing to knuckle under to Laforme. Later, a teary-eyed Laforme would say it boiled down to a moral question, and his own personal integrity. But most of us ordinary folks could only shake our heads in confusion and shame. Meanwhile, the folks that really mattered – the survivors – just kept dying at the rate of four more every week.
For decades, the federal government refused to deal with or even acknowledge complaints from survivors of the native residential school system. The feds and the churches shifted people around, covered tracks, overlooked malfeasance and even criminal acts in order to maintain the honour of the crown and uphold the sanctity of whatever church. Whenever a survivor refused to go away, or managed to actually get a lawyer to listen, the government built a wall of denial to anything resembling responsibility or accountability for the damage wrought to native lives. Then, in the face of more than a billion dollars in civil and class action law suits, and decisions awarding increasingly large settlements to the victims, Ottawa pulled a 180-degree turnabout.
What the feds came up with was a type of “no fault” insurance deal for itself and the churches. The deal went something like this: Okay, you have to prove that you went to residential school. You have to do the research. You have to pay for the records. Then you have to prove that you were there when whatever you claim took place. Then your claim will go for evaluation. If you haven’t proved your position to our satisfaction, you will be denied. What’s that? Can you opt out and go back to your lawsuit after going through all of this time and expense? Sorry. You signed a waiver before you began this alternative dispute resolution process.
Naturally… this only angered the victims because it required them to sign away any legal options – even before they had told their stories. The federal government really tried to get the survivors to believe that it would do right by them. It held conferences on the ADR process. It hired tons of lawyers to advise groups on how to apply and sign the waivers. But, well, there was that credibility thing. The survivors just weren’t buying it, even if the AFN did.
The feds still faced a billion dollars or more in legal suits and Canadian opinion was beginning to solidify behind the victims. So Ottawa then moved to settle the law suits out of court with these conditions: minimum payments to all survivors; additional damages would be awarded on a sliding scale for a long list of abuses that included beatings and rape among other things; the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission. An official apology was not promised, nor denied, but a possibility was left hanging.
Meanwhile, the three big churches involved in this “crime against humanity” (as some would have it) faced the same individual and class action law suits as the federal government. Individual churches within the Catholic, Anglican and United Churches faced bankruptcy for a lot of reasons, including these residential school damage awards, but also due to falling numbers as members left in droves, perhaps even as they became more sceptical about their spiritual leaders and the houses they built. The churches pushed hard for Ottawa to do something, including taking most of the blame and at least half of the cost for settling. Did they say “half”? They meant two-thirds. Going… going…
The third party in this triumvirate was the Assembly of First Nations, which the media (and the government) accorded official status as representatives of the victims, even though residential schools scooped up Métis and Inuit as well as Indians, and the survivors had their own organizations – thank you very much. The vast number of survivors were Indian, so that confusion made some sense. Still, the AFN was given a leading role in setting up the trc – not the survivors themselves. Phil Fontaine, the head of the AFN, is a survivor. But he is also the head of a national Indian organization with an increasingly angry bunch of voting chiefs who’ve seen lots of give from Fontaine and the AFN on issue after issue but very little gimme heading into the national chief’s mid-term. In other words, Fontaine needs some love.
Enter Laforme. Chosen among a short list of candidates suggested mainly by the triumvirate (federal government, churches and AFN) that cannot and will not put vested interests ahead of those of the survivors. The survivors’ groups grumble about the process, which they feel has been shanghaied. But they’re old and more die every day. The survivors hope Laforme will do right by them, because they have been given little choice but to hope. The question, and the survivors know it, is whether Laforme can become more than a token elevated by the old boy network into their stuffy little club? Can Laforme – will Laforme- take on the triumvirate and risk all for a bunch of dying old people?