'I think it's only fair': Sask. day school survivor hopes federal settlement will help others heal

It's been nearly 50 years since Kurt Adams attended what was then known as an Indian day school, but he remembers it like it was yesterday.

About 200,000 Indigenous children attended day schools, many of whom were abused

Kurt Adams says he suffered physical and mental abuse at a day school. He says he hopes an agreement in principle announced this week for those forced to attend the schools will help survivors heal. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

It's been 50 years since Kurt Adams attended what was then known as an Indian day school, but he remembers some of his experiences like they were yesterday.

"They were there to teach us about the Bible and about God and stuff, and I remember thinking, 'How can there be a God and let this happen to us?'" he said.

"It's hard to forget.… It's a memory that's never going to go away."

He hopes an agreement in principle announced this week for those forced to attend the schools will help other survivors to heal.

About 200,000 Indigenous children attended federally operated day schools for Indigenous students across the country, beginning in the 1920s. 

Although students could go home at the end of the school day, many faced abuse similar to that which occurred in residential schools, and they were not allowed to practise their Indigenous culture. 

Day schools were operated separately from residential schools and were not included in the 2006 multibllion-dollar Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

On Wednesday, the federal government announced an agreement in principle to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by former day school students who suffered cultural harm, as well as physical and sexual abuse while attending the schools.

"I think it's only fair," Adams said during a Thursday interview with CBC News. "They did the same damage as the residential schools did."

'You never forget things like that'

Adams, who grew up on Carry The Kettle Nakoda First Nation and is now a band council member, attended a day school as a young child in the late '60s, and then went to a residential school in the 1970s.

The 58-year-old says he suffered physical and mental abuse at the day school, and later sexual abuse at a residential school.

If day school students didn't work fast enough, they would often be picked up by their heads and forced to stand on their toes, he said.

"It was really, really bad."

All I learned was how to fight, how to protect myself.- Kurt Adams

Many students were punished for not understanding English, Adams says, something that was all the more difficult knowing physical abuse awaited if they fell behind.

He remembers standing against a wall with four or five other students while a teacher threw a basketball at them for struggling with their school work.

"When we flinched, got out of the way or whatever, that was one more — one more ball that was thrown at us — or we got the strap."

If they moved before getting hit with the strap, Adams says the teacher would give them, or the person behind them, another lashing.

Kurt Adams, right, has been working to heal past wounds from his time at day and residential schools. (Olivier Rouquairol Jodouin/SRC)

"You never forget things like that. They stay in your mind," he said. "That's 50 years ago and I still remember it."

Adams later attended a residential school but dropped out at the age of 16.

"All I learned was how to fight, how to protect myself," he said.

After his years in day school and residential school, Adams says he struggled with addiction.

"I didn't wake up and say, 'I want to be an alcoholic, I want to be a drug dealer.' Those are things that festered," he said.

He received compensation for his time spent in residential schools, he says, which he used to enrol in life skills classes to help him heal, and to understand and cope with the abuse he experienced.

Settlement in principle for day school survivors

The agreement in principle for day school survivors includes individual compensation, as well as $200 million for healing, wellness, language, culture and commemoration and funding for legal fees.

Adams hopes the process will help survivors heal — something he doesn't believe happens with just money.

He says many survivors struggle with addiction and a lump sum of money can make healing more difficult.

"If you're an alcoholic, if you're a drug abuser, and all of a sudden you get $100,000 ... you're not going to go and look for a councillor to help you, you're going to try an quench your thirst," he said,

"The last thing on your mind is healing."

The amount for individual compensation has not been made public, but it's expected to be announced early in the new year.

About the Author

Cory Coleman

Cory Coleman is a reporter, web writer and associate producer for CBC Saskatchewan. Have a story idea? Email cory.coleman@cbc.ca

With files from Bonnie Allen