More supports needed for former residential school students in the North, say survivors

Beatrice Bernhardt says talking about residential schools puts her back into a place of pain, but she keeps doing it because it’s important for the public to know what happened, and how the students persevered.

Survivors share experiences with the Indian Residential School Settlement process

Beatrice Bernhardt, right, with her husband Ernie, says had a relatively positive experience going through the settlement process thanks to help from her husband. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

Beatrice Bernhardt says talking about residential school is painful, but she keeps doing it because it's important for the public to know what happened, and how students persevered.

Bernhardt, who spent 12 years at Grollier Hall in Inuvik and two at Grandin College in Fort Smith, implores people to ask questions about residential schools, "so that you can know and understand what we're made of."

"We had hard times but we made it and we'd like to pass on that we're all strong and resilient — everyone — and we can survive again."

Bernhardt and her husband Ernie are both residential school survivors. They spent Thursday hearing and talking about residential schools, and the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

The full-day event in Yellowknife was hosted by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Its purpose was to gather feedback on the settlement process — to hear what worked and what didn't work — from survivors themselves.

It's one of seven events taking place in communities across the country, and the only one scheduled in the territories.

'I did all 242 applications from Kugluktuk'

Bernhardt, who lives in Yellowknife but is from Kugluktuk, Nunavut, said she had a relatively positive experience going through the settlement process.

She had a good lawyer, and her husband Ernie, who was a social worker, was also a big help — not just to her but to other survivors as well. 

"I did all 242 applications from Kugluktuk alone," he said, referring to paperwork survivors had to submit to get their settlement payments.  

"And then on top of that, people were calling me from Holman [Ulukhaktok], Cambridge [Bay], Fort Resolution, asking me to help them with their applications."

Ernie said for many of the people he helped, English was not their first language.

"I was getting all kinds of requests for me to give them help that they needed," he said.

"I never refused one."

He said he phoned Ottawa for backup, but none came.

The federal government, churches and and former students reached a $2-billion settlement in 2007 over abuses inflicted at residential schools.

The settlement included $1.9 billion in payments for an estimated 80,000 living survivors, as well as funds for healing programs and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

'The response has been frustratingly slow'

At the feedback session in Yellowknife, concern over a lack of support for people in northern communities was a common theme.

That was something raised by Marie Wilson, a former commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 

Marie Wilson, a former commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says more health supports are needed for residential school survivors in northern communities.

More than six years ago, the TRC's interim report made an urgent call for northern health supports and healing centres, she said. 

Wilson said she doesn't believe any actions have been taken based on that report's recommendations.

"The response time has been really frustratingly slow."

Wilson said she heard repeatedly there was nothing in the settlement for children and grandchildren of survivors.  

"That's really important to pay attention to because in any situation of extreme trauma, I think it's reasonable to expect that the traumas will play forward into the next generation," she said.

Bernhardt was glad representatives from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation had come to Yellowknife, but she would like them to visit other communities as well. 

"It's good to finally see some action happening, but I wish it was everywhere, not just to the communities they are going to," she said.