The Forgotten Survivors of Canada's Residential School System
For years, some 40,000 Indigenous survivors were denied justice on a legal technicality. A new settlement may change that.
Kenneth Weitsche may never know forgiveness.
Not forgiveness for the Indian agents who took him from his mother's arms or the government that ordered the abduction. That pales in comparison to the task that lies ahead.
Because, if he ever hopes to heal, Weistche will have to forgive himself. That’s something he can’t bring himself to do.
Sixty-one years after they took him, Weistche lives with the shame of having been stolen from his parents and robbed of a childhood. Most of all, he still blames himself for the man he became after the state tried to break him.
Weistche might take that pain to the grave.
"I can't let go," said Weistche, a survivor of the Bishop Horden Hall Residential School in Ontario. "When you're in residential school, you learn to blame yourself, to hate yourself for all the abuse you suffered. They took me when I was five years old, they returned me to my parents when I was 18. But I never really made it home. All of that violence lived inside me and it led me to do things I will always regret."
It's been nearly 20 years since the Canadian government reached a settlement agreement with the thousands of Indigenous people whose lives were destroyed by residential school. The agreement came with an official apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and $1.9 billion in compensation for survivors. It also launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Through the TRC, the settlement gave survivors a space to be heard and receive counselling for their trauma. But it also used legal technicalities to exclude tens of thousands of people from being compensated for the harm they endured as wards of the state.
People like Weistche.
His nightmare didn't end at Horden Hall. After six years there, he was transferred to the Fort George Indian Residential School — which had recently been converted to a “boarding school” even though little had changed for the students. And that's where the worst of the abuse happened.
"When you're 12, 13 years old, you have a better understanding of what they're doing to you," he said. "Everything you can think of, they did. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, they terrorized us. The early years are harder to remember but those later years, when you're old enough to know, for me that was the hardest."
For all intents and purposes, Fort George was a residential school. Students were forbidden from speaking Cree, they were beaten, molested and some have described instances of rape while attending high school in the remote community. And, just like residential school, the program was overseen by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
But since some of the children lived with families in the village of Chisasibi or in boarding homes off campus, their experience wasn't recognized by Ottawa. There was no cash settlement or apology from the Crown. Even though the abuse happened while these children were in federal custody.
After a four-year court battle, the federal government announced last week that it has agreed to pay upwards of $2 billion in damages for the survivors of boarding schools who'd previously been left out of the fold.
Between 1951 and 1992, an estimated 40,000 children were taken from their communities and sent to boarding schools to be forcefully assimilated into white society.
Beyond the individual cases of abuse, the federally-run program had a devastating impact on entire communities.
"When they put me on that southbound plane, I could only speak Cree. But when I returned, as a man, I could only understand about half of what my father said," Weitsche said. "We had a community of about 1,000 people that was emptied of its children. When our parents saw us off, they went home and cried for two days. Imagine a place with no kids, no one to pass on your language to, no one to pass on your knowledge to.
"My father was a trapper. He would spend most of his year living in the bush. Goose hunting in the fall, moose hunting in the winter, trapping beaver. He didn't speak English and I could barely speak Cree by the time I was 18. When I returned, I knew nothing of that life. There's no amount of money that will ever bring that back."
David Schulze represented the Quebec plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit. He got involved after one of his clients was denied compensation for the abuse she suffered while under the care of the federal government.
"It may not have happened on school grounds but the abuse occurred while they were under the care of the federal government," Schulze said. "So I told my client, 'Listen, it's a long shot but if you want to keep pushing I'm willing to.' And we'll file it for you and everyone else who was boarded. It started with four survivors in Fort George, then it expanded to other Cree communities.
"The federal government was telling me, 'Look, this wasn't residential school. It was the boarding school program. It's not covered.' So I decided to look deeper into it and I found out there was a much larger class action in federal court for students from across the country. So we joined them."
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Boarding schools are just one in a series of assimilationist policies that sought to destroy Indigenous languages, knowledge and communities across Canada. The Sixties Scoop forced tens of thousands of Indigenous parents to give up their kids for adoption into white families. Today, there are more Indigenous children in state care than at the height of the residential school system.
Though there have been multi-billion dollar settlements in all of those cases, the government fought each of them in court, despite condemnations from Canada's Human Rights Tribunal, Amnesty International and the United Nations.
Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said the agreement is just "one piece of the much larger puzzle to address the ongoing legacy of residential school."
"There is no justice for the survivors because justice would be giving back to them all that was lost from these atrocious, unspeakable abuses," said Miller. "I don't know that the court system is the next best thing but financial compensation may provide some form of solace. Is it just? That's not for me to say. Some people will never find closure and that brings me back to the point about justice.
"You don't want to be, as a government, dragged kicking and screaming through the court system as the years drag on and people grow old and die. This is one of those court cases that tests this government's dedication to reconciliation. It harkens back to that apology in 2008, which was only the beginning of a process that has yet to be fully resolved."
Unlike previous settlements, claimants in the boarding school case won't have to go through a public — and often heart-wrenching — process of explaining their abuse. That sort of re-traumatization and a long, confusing process marred survivors of the sixties scoop for years after their case was settled by the Trudeau government.
In this latest settlement, payouts won't be capped but should average between $10,000 and $50,000. The seven-page agreement in principle also outlines $50 million in psychological support for survivors and their families. Weistche says that treating his own trauma was part of a much larger healing process. His children all too often bore the brunt of his pain.
"When you spend your childhood surviving, when you spend it being beaten and humiliated, that doesn't prepare you to be a father," Weistche said. "Thirty years ago, I went to a treatment centre. I was abusing alcohol, mixed up in drugs and all that. So I went out west with my wife and three of our children. When I was there, a psychologist observed us as a family.
"So after two weeks, things are going well. No drinking, no drugs. But the psychologist sat us down and said, 'There's a problem. Do you know what it is?' I didn't understand. So he said, 'You and your wife are raising your children as if they were in residential school.'
"All of the horrible things we learned in residential school, we were giving to our children. It was devastating. I cried. I cried so much. To think that I could do that to my own children who I loved so much. It's all I knew. The government will never understand how devastating that was."
Weistche doesn't have too many memories of his early life on Cree territory. He knows his parents brought him deep into the forest each year, travelling in snowshoes his father made from wood and sinew, on a trapline passed down through his family.
Then one day, bush planes came and took all the children.
All 10 of Weistche's siblings were sent away. As Weistche says, there's no coming back from that.
"I can't imagine how my parents felt, seeing all their children taken," he said. "When I came back for good, at 18, my father took me into the bush for the summer. I remember watching him, watching everything he could do with his hands and realizing he would have taught me that if I had stayed home. I wonder how many fathers and sons went through that across this country."
Weistche is an old man now.
He's still spry enough to make the long drive south from James Bay to Ottawa so he can help with settlement negotiations. By the time he's compensated, he may be in his seventies — a far cry from the child that spent 12 years in captivity. A five-figure settlement that comes so late in life is no substitute for a stolen childhood, he says.
In the end, Weitsche did the best he could to pick up the pieces and make a life for himself and his family. He went to university, worked as a counsellor at the Waskaganish Wellness Society and helped advance the lawsuit by acting as a facilitator between lawyers and other survivors.
His voice is raspy but it exudes warmth. Weitche is easy to talk to and doesn't force conversation during the quiet moments of our interview. He must have been a great counsellor.
Throughout our hour-long chat, I found myself wondering what Kenneth would have been like if they never took him from his home that summer. He left James Bay when you could only get into the territory on a bush plane after the ice melted or on perilous ski-doo ride in the winter. When he returned, many of his ancestral lands had been flooded to make way for a series of hydroelectric dams. Paved roads started linking communities in the bush to the settler society eroding their way of life.
He describes a sense of grief without end.
"They don't understand, all these ministers, all these people who say they're going to make things right," Weitsche said. "Things will never be right. I'm not saying there's no healing but how do you fix a lifetime of pain?"
Thanks. As usual, Christopher Curtis gets to the heart and soul of an issue