Indigenous

'It is our time to tell our truths': National organization for Indian day school survivors launched

A national organization to support wellness and healing initiatives for thousands of survivors of federally-run Indian day schools will officially launch Thursday.

The McLean Day School Settlement Corp. will administer a $200M legacy fund to support day school survivors

Claudette Commanda poses in front of the former Prince of Wales Bridge in Ottawa, which was recently renamed the Chief William Commanda Bridge after her grandfather, on July 9. She will be part of the board for the new McLean Day School Settlement Corporation. (David Richard/Radio-Canada)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A national organization to support wellness and healing initiatives for thousands of survivors of federally-run Indian day schools marked its official launch two years after the Federal Court of Canada approved a nationwide settlement agreement.

The McLean Day School Settlement Corporation introduced its board members via a ceremony Thursday from Eel Ground First Nation in New Brunswick.

"What's important is hope and building a legacy of healing," said Elder Claudette Commanda, a member of the board who is Algonquin from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in Quebec.

Commanda herself is a survivor of the day school system, having been forced to attend the Congo Bridge school in Kitigan Zibi.

"We did go home to our families after school, but there was still abuses that went on," she said.

"We were not allowed to speak our language in those schools. We were not allowed to even know anything about who we are as Anishinaabe people."

The McLean Day School Settlement Corporation announced its board of directors on Aug. 19 during a virtual ceremony from Eel Ground First Nation, N.B. (CBC News)

Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Roger Augustine and James Igloliorte, a retired Inuk judge, are also part of the non-profit organization's board.

In 2019, Canada signed a $1.47-billion settlement with thousands of former students who suffered harm while attending federally operated Indian day schools.

Because the day schools were operated separately from residential schools, day school students were left out of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Students at the grounds of the Cote Indian Day School, near Kamsack, Sask., in September 1958. A total of 669 day schools operated across Canada between 1863 and 2000. (Library and Archives Canada)

The day school survivors settlement agreement earmarked a $200-million legacy fund, which the new organization will administer to support initiatives that foster language and culture, healing and wellness, commemoration and truth telling for day school survivors and their families.

The organization is named after the late Garry McLean, who was lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit that led to the settlement agreement. 

"Dad's legacy is to leave the world in more joy than he had experienced. It is his hope, the team's vision and work to help find peace, balance and healing," said McLean's daughter Kristin McLean during the ceremony.

In a statement Wednesday, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada spokesperson Carine Midy said in addition to individual compensation, it was important that the settlement included "forward-looking investments to support survivors, their families and communities [to] address the painful legacy of federal Indian day schools."

What are Indian day schools?

A photo of children at a day school from the archives of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center in Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. (KORLCC)

An often overlooked part of Canadian history, over 600 day schools operated across Canada in every province and territory except Newfoundland and Labrador between 1863 and 2000.

While separate from the residential school system, day schools were also part of a federal policy aimed at assimilating First Nations and Inuit children, and often had religious affiliations to the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican and other churches.

The new support organization will begin to engage this fall with survivors, families and communities on how the legacy fund should be structured, implemented and distributed. Outreach will take place via regional virtual sessions between late September and November. An online survey is also available.

Mariette Buckshot, also from Kitigan Zibi, Que., and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she feels comforted by the fact that day school survivors are a part of the board, which will be gathering input across the country from other survivors and their families. 

"It is our time to tell our truths, our stories and traumas. Time to teach the truths of how we were cast as savages that needed to be tamed and colonized in ways that were inhumane," she said.

"It's time we show our resilience and strength, to stand above all the wrongs that were done to us and to show the world that we still exist and continue to be heard and seen."

For Commanda, healing is at the forefront, but she also recognizes the need for Canadians to learn more about the history of Indian day schools and experiences of survivors.

Unlike the Indian residential school settlement agreement, the day school settlement agreement didn't include a national inquiry or commission such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"Canadians need to be educated on federal Indian schools. They need to hear the truth," she said.

"Speaking as a survivor, healing and wellness is so important. But how do we get healing and wellness? Truth has to be told."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec. Email her at kanhehsiio.deer@cbc.ca

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