After years of disappointment, northern Sask. boarding school survivors hope compensation on the horizon

A group of survivors from the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school say that they will sign an agreement formalizing the process to negotiate for compensation for abuse suffered at the school within the next month. It's been a long process for those who attended the northern Saskatchewan school.

Île-à-la-Crosse survivors, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan say agreement with feds coming

Leonard Montgrand is a former student of the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school. He said he wonders why his father, a fellow survivor, sent him there. (CBC)

A group of survivors from the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school say that they will sign an agreement formalizing the process to negotiate for compensation for abuse suffered at the school within the next month.

Getting to that point has been a long process for those who attended the school in the northern Saskatchewan village.

"I never thought we would get to this point in my lifetime that I would be able to seek compensation," said Leonard Montgrand, a member of a committee for survivors who attended the school.

From the 1860s until it shut down in the mid-1970s, the school housed children from across northern Saskatchewan who have described abuse and separation from their families, akin to what survivors of residential schools have been through.

However, Île-à-la-Crosse students were denied the Indian Residential School settlements that others received, on the basis that the school was run by the Roman Catholic Church with no federal funding.

There is no timeline on when negotiation between the feds and Île-à-la-Crosse survivors will wrap up, nor is there any confirmation of what form potential compensation could take — although Montgrand said he's hoping for a compensation package similar to the residential school settlements.

"Today we finally received recognition as Indigenous people, as Métis people. We suffer the same as our brothers of First Nations residential schools. It's important to remember that and to understand that," Montgrand said at a media conference in Saskatoon Wednesday.

"I feel for the previous survivors that are passed away, that they're not able to share in this special moment for all of us."

Compensation does not necessarily mean a cash payout. It could include programming or legacy foundations, suggested Montgrand and Glen McCallum, the president of the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett has met with advocates for a resolution to the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school issue multiple times over the years. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett's office said it is too early in the process to comment on anything specific. The memorandum of understanding, which will be between the federal government, the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan and the survivor committee, is not yet fully hashed out.

Class action lawsuits have been features of settlements that were reached between the feds and schools that were left out of the 2006 residential schools settlement.

A long time coming

Over the years, past survivor committee members have been given dates for when an agreement over compensation should be reached. Those dates have all blown by.

It's little surprise, then, that survivor Dehlia Sylvestre says she "had kind of given up on it."

Others in the north joke amongst themselves that if the day comes, they'll take a vacation to Hawaii.

"If it does happen, I'm sure a lot of people will be happy," Sylvestre said.

There has been no shortage of former students pushing for what NDP MP Georgina Jolibois, who represents the riding Île-à-la-Crosse is in, has called "justice" in the case, to mixed results.

The survivor committee has been in place since 1992.

The Métis National Council also took up the torch, and in the late 2000s, when Stephen Harper was on the campaign trail, he said in a radio commercial that if he were prime minister, former students from the school would be compensated. The Conservative government later backtracked on that campaign trail promise, saying it didn't have all the facts at the time.

In 2016, the committee was successful in bringing Minister Bennett to Île-à-la-Crosse — 380 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon — for a gathering of hundreds of the boarding school's survivors.

She sat for hours as people from the region stood behind mics, detailing the pain, humiliation and loss of identity they suffered decades ago while they were students at the boarding school.

Most of them were Métis, some Dene.

McCallum, whose mother attended the boarding school, was there. He said he watched Minister Bennett take a piece of the building that she symbolically demolished with a sledgehammer, and that he believed she took the piece back with her to Ottawa.

Île-à-la-Crosse Mayor Duane Favel said at the time that he hoped to bring closure for people who have, for decades, sought recognition by the feds.

"It's with great hope and anticipation I get to hear you today in terms of implementing a process to bring some closure to this issue," Favel said.

The suffering of former students led to issues with alcohol and drugs in their communities when they returned from school, and recognition of those effects is important, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan president Glen McCallum said at a Wednesday press conference. (CBC)

Nothing came that day, aside from Bennett agreeing to a six-month period for negotiations to determine what the feds can offer in terms of healing.

"It is time to get to the table and it's time to find that just and honourable resolution to this dark chapter in our history," Bennett said at the time.

Little had been heard from the minister on the file since then, up until the recent survivor committee announcement, which revolves around a memorandum of understanding with the feds.

At the Wednesday press conference, McCallum thanked Bennett "for her steadfast support and championing this file at the federal level."

Different this time

Montgrand is insistent that a resolution is coming.

He makes no qualms that the reason things are moving along is because of political connections and repeated reminders to the minister.

He credits not just the Île-à-la-Crosse gathering alone, but several other Saskatchewan events where he directly spoke to Bennett to lobby for action on the boarding school file.

The new relationship the feds have with the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan is another factor. The MN-S hired a legal team to accompany the survivor committee's efforts.

No matter what happens, McCallum said there will be one marked difference between this case and the Indian Residential School Settlement cases.

"The lawyers won't get compensation. The lawyer that represents the committee, that we hired for the committee, will not have that compensation or legal fees go to him. We've been paying that for the nation," he said.

Why now?

One reason for the hold-up on action was indicated in a letter sent to the daughter of a survivor in 2017 by Jeff Moore, who was the senior assistant deputy to Bennett at the time, and then posted to a Facebook group for the survivors.

"In the case of Île-à-la-Crosse some of the survivors have chosen to turn to legal counsel to seek a resolution before the courts," he wrote.

In that letter, Moore noted that reconciliation in the claims of individuals left out of the residential schools settlement is specifically referred to in the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Bennett has previously said she prefers to mediate rather than litigate.