|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Indigenous students taken years ago from their families and forced into residential schools by the Canadian Government as a way to assimilate into mainstream culture were now ‑‑ decadeslater ‑‑ receiving compensation for their trauma as part of a broad desire to leave a discriminatory past behind and build a stronger future, Murray Sinclair, Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, said today at a Headquarters press briefing.
“Reconciliation is a difficult conversation,” he added.
At the United Nations for the first time to attend the ninth session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Mr. Sinclair said the Commission had come about as the result of a settlement agreement reached between former students of the residential schools, the Canadian Government and the churches that ran the institutions. Claimants had sued over physical abuse suffered at the schools, and the forced loss of their indigenous culture and language.
The Commission’s five-year mandate was to examine the history of residential schools, he said, and develop a reconciliation plan. Its particular focus on indigenous children distinguished it as unique from other commissions around the world. A report was to be available within its first two years and, at the end of its term, it was to have set up a national research centre, where documents could be deposited and made available to the public.
By way of background, Mr. Sinclair said 150,000 aboriginal youth had been sent to the residential schools over a period of some 150 years. Most schools were located in western Canada; 70 per cent were managed by the Roman Catholic Church. Litigation begun in the 1990s by a handful of students quickly grew to “dozens of thousands of cases” filed by 2005.
A Can$2 billion fund was created, which allowed for claims in two categories, he said. “Common experience payments” of Can$10,000 for the first year of school attendance and Can$3,000 for each subsequent year would be made to former students who lived at eligible residential schools. About 100,000 such claims had been made, of which 24,000 had been rejected by Canada as “not qualifying”.
The remaining 75,000 claims had been awarded in amounts that did not acknowledge the full amount of time spent in the schools, he said. From them, around 15,000 “Independent Assessment Process” claims had been filed, which captured accusations of physical assault. They had not yet been heard and, failing an extension of the 2013 deadline for resolution, would face a backlog.
Describing other work, Mr. Sinclair said the Commission would hold seven national events, the first of which would take place in July and allow survivors to testify to their experiences. It was also working with an advisory committee to create a survivor commemoration fund. Ultimately, the Commission’s task was to “point to the road of reconciliation”: define what it should try to achieve between survivors and defendants, and among survivors themselves. With four years left in its term, the Commission had much work to do.
When the floor was opened to questions, Mr. Sinclair, addressing common experience payments, said that of the 100,000 claims filed, 24 per cent had been rejected because claimants had not established proof of attendance at a residential school. Many schools, while run by the Church, had been left off a list of schools included in the settlement agreement, as they were not “residential schools” in the classic sense. Also, some claimants did not have attendance records ‑‑ that information had been kept by the Government, which itself had admitted that 20 per cent of the records had gone missing or been destroyed.
As to the role the Commission could play in the international discussion on residential schools, he said countries like the United States, Australia and New Zealand, as well as other countries, perhaps in Africa, would be interested in the Commission’s experience. “We’re learning as we go,” he said. In that process, it could assist other jurisdictions.
Regarding the problem of obtaining documents from the Church and Government, Mr. Sinclair said the stickiest issue was the question of what information was relevant. The defendants had many documents to give, but the Commission was not yet ready to receive them. Perhaps not all were relevant.
Addressing a query on compensation amounts, Mr. Sinclair said the formula for receiving Can$10,000 for the first year of attendance and Can$3,000 for each subsequent year had been negotiated by the parties to the agreement.
To a question on whether countries had approached the Commission for advice, Mr. Sinclair said expressions of interests for communication on how the Commission was mandated had been received.
Joining the discussion, Commissioner Marie Wilson answered a question on the specificity of Canada’s Commission mandate, explaining that the Commission faced the huge task of gathering written history from the Church and Government, and oral histories from survivors. Equally important, and perhaps more difficult, was the task of engaging mainstream Canadians on what that history had to do with them. The schools existed before Canada was confederated as a country. “Most Canadians know nothing about it,” she said. “We have a huge, uphill, ongoing job to do.”
Adding his voice, Chief Robert Joseph, an adviser to the Commission who also had attended a residential school, said that by telling their stories, survivors advanced their healing. There was a strong push for a community-designed component to the Commission. It had a huge potential for success, but the big concern was whether Canadians would come to the Commission. If they did not, “for us, it would be like saying, again, ‘you have no value’”.
As to why it fell to the claimants to hunt down attendance records from defendants, Mr. Sinclair responded that it was a class action legal principle, whereby proof of belonging to a class entitled to compensation was needed. However, it was an arduous process. “They don’t have yearbooks.” Many were hard pressed to sort out which schools they attended and when, as they had been transferred numerous times. Perhaps the onus should be reversed. If the Government can prove that a claimant did not attend, they would receive no payment.
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