Atlantic First Nations seek emergency assistance with 'tsunami' of work from Indian day school claims

First Nations chiefs in the Atlantic region are asking the federal government for emergency help to deal with requests for legal and mental health support from former students submitting claims in the Indian day schools settlement process.

John Paul, executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs Secretariat (APC-FNC) and a former day school student himself, said the claims process has created “a tsunami” of former students asking for help from community health centres, which he said have been overwhelmed and are already under-resourced.

Community members have been “run ragged,” he said, helping former students navigate the legal terminology and detail required in the application forms, while at the same time providing emotional and cultural support.

“In Atlantic Canada alone, it involves 7,560 people,” he said.

“That’s a lot of people in communities that are going to have to reopen wounds that have been buried for decades.”

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

The nationwide Indian day schools class action settlement, which includes more than 120,000 former federal day school students, was approved by the Federal Court in August. The claims process began on Jan. 13. 

The settlement offers former students a range of compensation between $10,000 and $200,000, based on abuse suffered. Survivors claiming more severe forms of abuses and harms must complete a written narrative, provide evidence of attendance and relevant documentation such as medical records. Those who do not have the required support documentation are expected to complete a sworn declaration signed by the claimant and a notary, elected official, or other professional.

The first page of the application directs people in emotional distress to the Hope For Wellness helpline, and to a second hotline for legal help with the claims form. 

‘A third trauma’

Paul said for communities that have been through the residential schools settlement claim process and the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, “This is a third trauma, added on.” 

The APC-FNC sent letters on Jan. 31 to the Prime Minister’s Office, the federal departments of Crown Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services, and Gowlings WLG, the legal firm handling the nationwide class settlement, requesting “immediate additional legal, financial and mental health resources.”

John Paul, executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Paul said the law firm responded, but did not offer any additional mental wellness resources. He said they had not heard back from the federal departments or prime minister.

Gowlings WLG told CBC News that the only mental health support resources they are promoting to communities are provincial and territorial phone lines, many of which were previously established, like the federal government’s Hope For Wellness Hotline. 

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services Canada had not provided comment by the time of publishing.

Leroy Denny, chief of Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia and a former day school student, prompted APC-FNC to adopt a motion to lobby for emergency assistance. 

“We were just overwhelmed … it’s very difficult to deal with,” he said. 

Denny said his band, which is the largest Mi’kmaq community in the region, had to hire extra staff. He said that staff in all areas were trying to help day school students, but most were under-equipped to deal with the subsequent emotional trauma.

“We’re just the administrative people … They need the professional mental health care workers.” 

Denny said he’s been in touch with government officials over the past week and expects to have some of the community’s expenses covered, but is still hoping for the process to improve.

“It looks like it’s under control for now, but we identified that we need more people. Hopefully we get some help,” he said.

Concern also for workers’ health

The Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq (UNSM) oversees various mental health programs for six Mi’kmaq communities in the province, and has a team focused on supporting former day school students. 

Todd Vasallo, a psychotherapist with the mental wellness team, said because the claim forms require detail to classify and match a student’s experiences with a compensation value, a professional needs to be there in-person, to listen and offer counselling as they relive traumatic memories.

“These are things that cannot really be accomplished with a 1-800 number, or speaking to someone over the phone hours later,” Vasallo said. 

The Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq oversees various mental health programs for six Mi’kmaq communities in the province, and has a team focused on supporting former day school students. (Submitted by Buddy Young)

Richard “Buddy” Young, a former Eskasoni day school student, has been working with Vasallo as one of the UNSM’s cultural support workers, who offer community-specific assistance like spiritual support and Mi’kmaw to English language translations.

“It’s a lot of weight and pressure,” Young said, about the roles he and other community members have taken on. 

“They’re not trained in mental wellness or mental health,” he said. “So it’s causing trauma for them, just by hearing people’s stories and narratives. It’s vicarious trauma.”

Young said he’s concerned about the workloads that people in the health programs are facing. Many are already “maxed out” with residential school survivor cases.

Young said he thinks it’s clear that the federal government and law firm didn’t consider the wider impacts.

“One single hotline number is not enough.”

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