Can’t Buy Me Love: Residential School Payments have Mixed Consequences

By Myles Zacharias

Splashed across Canadian news in late January 2009 was the headline: “Residential school payments have deadly fallout: Documents”. The article began here:

“Payments to Indian residential school survivors meant to compensate them for mistreatment have led to suicides, substance abuse and depression across the country, documents obtained by Canwest News Service show.”

Sharon Thira, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivor’s Society, is the source of several quotes in the article, (printed in the National Post, the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Times Colonist, the Province, and several other Canwest owned media syndicates), but has since indicated to the First Nations Drum that the story was unfair to the overall complicated experience of residential school survivors. Thira began her statement to the Drum by saying, “I want to make it clear that I’m not interested in perpetuating the notion of Survivors dying from receiving the CEP payments.”

However, Thira does not shy away from confirming along with counselors and families in several parts of Canada that there have been deaths and increased substance abuse alongside the surge of money that came to many residential school survivors. But Thira, and in a similar fashion Phil Fontaine (national chief of the Assembly of First Nations), are claiming that the cause of recent deaths is not the money itself. This simple conception (money means problems for Indians) lops off too many important discussions. Rather, Fontaine and Thira would argue that the real ‘cause’ worth exposing and developing is still the greater tragedy of the residential school experience. And then moving to consider a larger range of issues they pinpoint social, political, and economic structures that have snubbed this archetypical Aboriginal experience, an experience captured starkly in this residential school abuse story.

Fontaine dismisses the question over whether or not to restrict the spending freedom of residential school survivors who receive payment. Instead he directs the conversation to current (disproportionate) rates of suicide and substance abuse in First Nations communities, and that neither of these similar complex problems can be solved by the restriction of financial freedom. Fontaine believes that on the whole payments and issues surrounding them have been handled well. Others believe counseling interventions for survivors have been inadequate, and still others say it is not inadequate but it is very difficult to get people to go, given barriers like survivor’s strong distrust of government institutions.

While people disagree over the best approach to therapy and access to it, there is widespread agreement over the following quote by Ingrid Sochting, (chief psychologist at Richmond General Hospital in B.C., witness of settlement cases, and author of Traumatic Pasts in Canadian Aboriginal People): “Post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression doesn’t just magically disappear just because one has received an apology and some compensation.”

For Sharon Thira the recent deaths were not unexpected and in some cases not preventable. Thira says, “For me the issue is far more complex. Survivors have been dying in huge proportions since coming out of school. These recent deaths are merely a continuation of that tragedy.”

At the same time Thira says that the positive aboriginal stories are too often left out of Canada’s mainstream media. She says, “The fact is that the 70,000 or so recipients who have done well with their payments are not being reported on.”

The good news is that Leader-Post reported that in Regina Police Service Staff Sgt. Jerry Nelson has witnessed minimal negative consequences from the CEP payments. Sgt. Nelson told Leader-Post that the Cowessess First Nation deserve much credit, as they came to the police in June with worries over pending payments and their potential negative consequences in the community. Their plan, which Sgt. Nelson called the First Nation’s “visionary strategy”, was developed from conversations in the community. The Cowessess Chief’s assistant, Alvin Delorme, said they moved to offer residential school survivors a “financial management tool kit”. A four-day workshop was also held during which residential school survivors were assisted with filling out applications, dealing with emotional issues that arose, and opening bank accounts.

Sgt. Nelson said further in that article that the strong relationship between all the diverse groups continue, and “healing gatherings continue to take place out of the public eye.” Given that about $130 million in CEP surged into Regina, Sgt. Nelson said, “we’re quite excited and satisfied with the fact we had minimal (negative) effect based on what’s happened in the rest of the country.”