Some Mi'kmaw residential school survivors say settlement wasn't worth the painful process

Mi'kmaw residential school survivors told a feedback gathering session last week that the results of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement process were often not worth recounting the painful memories of their time at the schools.

N.S. survivors give National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation candid feedback on settlement process

Alan Knockwood, a survivor of Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, said the settlement process was 'demeaning and very difficult.' (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Mi'kmaw residential school survivors told a feedback gathering session last week that the results of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement process were often not worth recounting the painful memories of their time at the schools.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) held the feedback gathering session at Eskasoni First Nation last Thursday. 

"People don't realize just how much of the trauma from residential school still lingers," said Alan Knockwood of Sipekne'katik First Nation. 

"When you dredge it up and have to repeat and repeat it through that process, it becomes alive again. That's very difficult to go through." 

The NCTR has been meeting with residential school survivors across the country since October, through an initiative called Lessons Learned from the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, asking them what worked and what didn't throughout the various settlement processes. 

The $2 billion settlement was approved in 2006. As well as providing payments to residential school survivors, it funded the Aboriginal Healing Foundation for a limited period and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Knockwood was one of about a dozen former students of Shubenacadie Residential School who attended the one-day session in Eskasoni. The school operated for 37 years in Shubenacadie, N.S.

Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic-run Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Shubenacadie, N.S. (Library and Archives Canada)

He expressed frustration that, throughout the settlement process, he was asked to provide "nuanced" details of the same abuse numerous times to different people. 

He said he thinks statement gathering could have been handled in a more sensitive way, limiting the number of times a survivor had to revisit traumatic moments.

"I feel a lot better about the process now, but [it] was demeaning and very difficult," he said.

"You had to dredge up memories that you've suppressed for years. It's taken a long time for me to put those back in perspective and heal again." 

Knockwood, along with many of the other survivors at the session, agreed that the settlement process prompted him to fully confront his painful memories at the school — a step he resisted vehemently, he said. 

He said the biggest benefit was reconnecting with classmates and learning of other communities' unique healing programs. Knockwood said he's thinking about starting one in his own community.

Settlement led to 'grabbing'

Multiple survivors at the session, including Georgina Doucette of Eskasoni, who attended Shubenacadie school from 1950 to 1958, expressed concerns about where and how money was spent in the settlement process. 

"What we got was not worth it," she said. 

Georgina Doucette of Eskasoni First Nation at the NCTR feedback gathering in Eskasoni. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Doucette said that while she didn't expect her own financial settlement to help her heal, she and others in her community thought that the process led to non-Indigenous lawyers and mental health clinics "grabbing for First Nations people" to receive funding. She said that money could have gone to survivors and their communities.

Doucette said she grew suspicious when soon after embarking on the settlement process, numerous therapists from outside her community began approaching her, offering treatment.

"Everybody else was making money off these poor people, us, who ... had to open old wounds and go through this process," she said.

Doucette said she was also disappointed that taxes on legal fees were deducted from the settlements she and her brother, also a survivor of Shubenacadie school, received.

"We didn't get enough to begin with," she said. "Then they take away what little we have." 

Other survivors said their financial settlements were too small to make any significant impact on the lives of their family members, and they were not given advice on how to manage the money even though they often left residential schools with less than an elementary education. 

Descendants feel left out

Survivors also brought up concerns about the intergenerational effects of the schools, and questions about what's to come for their children and grandchildren. 

Elizabeth Marshall, whose father attended Shubenacadie residential school, said she thinks Canada has a responsibility to push the settlement agreement forward, and put forth the resources to allow descendants of survivors to design their own methods to deal with intergenerational trauma.

Mi'kmaw Elizabeth Marshall, of Eskasoni First Nation, at the NCTR feedback gather session in Nov. 2018 (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Addressing the racist practices that allowed for residential schools should also have been a focus of the settlement agreement, Marshall said.

"[Survivors] brought home those 'civilized ways' from the Christians ... and it almost destroyed us. Now we're all suffering these social ills." 

The NCTR's Lessons Learned sessions are scheduled to wrap up in December. A report on the feedback is expected in March 2019.


Nic Meloney

Former Videojournalist, CBC Indigenous

Nic Meloney is a mixed heritage Wolastoqi videojournalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.