Indigenous advocates applaud compensation for student-on-student abuse

Indigenous advocates are praising the federal government's plan to pursue settlements with former residential school residents who suffered student-on-student abuse — but they think Ottawa may be greatly underestimating the number of victims.

But they think the actual number of victims is far higher than the 240 mentioned by Ottawa

A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a February 1940 archive photo. The discovery of potentially hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools has prompted calls for the release of records. (Library and Archives Canada)

Indigenous advocates are praising the federal government's plan to pursue settlements with former residential school residents who suffered student-on-student abuse — and they think the final number of victims will be far larger than the 240 cited by Ottawa.

"I think it's a really good thing and a step toward healing for those people who are affected by this particular aspect of the residential school experience," said Amy Bombay, an assistant professor at the School of Nursing and Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University.

According to a government news release, this new action to pursue negotiated settlements with survivors whose claims of student-on-student abuse were dismissed or did not receive fair compensation could help roughly 240 eligible former students.

Both Bombay and Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, said they believe the actual number of victims is larger.

"I would estimate that it would be a lot higher," said Bombay.

More victims may come forward

"We know from the Independent Assessment Process statistics that roughly 40 per cent of all of the IAP claims were related to student-on-student abuse," said Moran, adding there were about 40,000 IAP claimants across the country.

Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: "Telling the truth in those environments was next to impossible." (Submitted by Digvir Jayas)

Moran said he believes the announcement might help other survivors come forward and share their stories of abuse.

"These schools were so unbelievably unhealthy and they were so dangerous for students on the inside that telling the truth in those environments was next to impossible," he said.

Bombay spent over a year researching student-on-student abuse at residential schools.

She interviewed 43 health care providers across the country who work directly with residential school survivors — including psychologists and support workers — to better understand the nature of the physical, mental and sexual abuse that occurred.

"It really is part of the residential school history and legacy that hasn't really been acknowledged within the mainstream dialogue," she said.

Silence surrounding student-on-student abuse

Former chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Sen. Murray Sinclair has referred to student-on-student abuse as an "unspoken truth" of residential schools.

Amy Bombay, Dalhousie University: "A common outcome of this type of collective trauma is collective silence." (Submitted)

Bombay agrees and attributes the lack of publicity the problem has attracted to the nature of the abuse itself.

"All of those students who were abusing other students were also abused," she said. "A common outcome of this type of collective trauma is collective silence."

Another factor keeping survivors quiet, said Bombay, is the fact that many live in the same communities as their abusers.

"It's still an issue that people are grappling with," she said. "It was particularly hard to experience abuse from those students where support was expected."

Moran said that while it's not discussed as openly as other types of violence, student-on-student abuse was cited in reports by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"Student-on-student abuse is different than the abuse inflicted on children by pedophiles," said Moran.

"[However] it all has its root in the pedophilia that was rampant in the schools in the first place. It was the adults abusing children in the most heinous and unbelievable ways that created this rampant process of student-on-student abuse."

A flawed process

The federal government has said the Independent Assessment Process established by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was an important tool for obtaining compensation for some survivors — but it acknowledged some former students may not have received fair compensation.

The IAP has been criticized for the high bar of proof claimants had to meet when it came to student-on-student abuse. Claimants had to prove that they reported the abuse to a school staff member, or that a staff member should have known it was happening.

Moran said the IAP was flawed.

"The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, while it accomplished many things, was an imperfect agreement and the ongoing efforts to properly address the harms inflicted upon students and to properly compensate them for those harms are very important," he said.

"[Student-on-student abuse survivors] absolutely deserve the same level of compensation, absolutely deserve the same level of recognition and absolutely deserve the opportunity for healing and recovery from that unwanted, unwarranted and totally unacceptable abuse."

A government source said the settlements will cover previously filed cases, not new ones, and won't introduce any new evidence.