One month into the Indian day school settlement claims process, First Nations health officials in the Atlantic region are voicing their frustration over what they’re calling the “unethical” process and a lack of communication from the federal government.
In January, the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs (APC-FND) requested the federal government take emergency measures to deal with a sudden influx of support requests to their community-level mental health programs, after former students began their settlement claim applications.
APC-FNC executive director John Paul told CBC News that as of Feb. 14, there had been no response from the federal government, other than a letter from Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller that directed his request to Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.
“I think the [federal] government is 100 per cent responsible. They created the Indian day school system,” said Sharon Rudderham, director of Health for Eskasoni First Nation, the largest of 30 Mi’kmaw communities in the Atlantic region.
“They’re liable and responsible for this entire horrific mess that our communities are dealing with.”
In an email statement, a spokesperson for the federal department of Indigenous Services said Canada recognizes that the process can be “very difficult” for survivors and that the federal government is working in collaboration with Gowling WLG to provide health supports at the law firm’s scheduled community information sessions.
“We acknowledge concerns from the Atlantic region and are working diligently toward a solution, ” the statement read.
Rudderham said First Nations health-care providers were hopeful that the application process would be organized so as to limit disruption to each community’s existing health-care programs.
But instead, the number of people traumatized “is growing at an exponential rate,” she said, because band staff not trained to deal with trauma are required to help the former students.
“When you hear stories such as this, [they] stay with you for the rest of your life,” said Daphne Hutt-MacLeod, a registered psychologist and director of Eskasoni Mental Health.
“It’s not something that you can talk about to other people because of confidentiality, but it’s also something that you carry. This whole process is unethical.”
Hutt-MacLeod said that in some Mi’kmaw communities, the number of former day school students is three-to-five times that of residential school survivors, and that while the two settlement claim processes are different, they both carry a risk of doing more harm.
“[It’s] a mess created by a colonial system,” she said.
“Communities are being asked to clean up somebody else’s mess … I would have thought that with the IRS [settlement process], that the lesson would have been learned and a more compassionate trauma-informed process would have been put into place,” she said.
What was learned from residential schools settlement
A spokesperson from Gowling WLG, the firm handling the class action, said in an emailed statement that the firm is committed to ensuring former students move through the process “in a good way.”
In developing the registration and application processes, the firm relied on feedback from communities across the country, including those who went through the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) in 2007, the spokesperson said.
The day school class action’s website states its claims process “is specifically designed to avoid the lengthy and often re-traumatizing legal process of evidence collection, cross-examination and a confrontational hearing process.”
“We recognize that writing a personal narrative, as part of the claims process, can be difficult and very emotional for people,” the statement reads.
“Survivors need and deserve support. Class counsel are doing our part to help survivors access the help they need.”
A 2010 study by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) examined the impacts of the common experience payment claims process that was part of the IRSSA, based on a review of government services.
The report said: “The most common explanation for why the CEP process was a trigger was that working through the application brought back negative memories and opened old wounds.”
The AHF report was based on a study group of 281 Métis, Inuit and First Nations survivors from across Canada, and found:
- Almost 20 per cent of the group said the process left them feeling worse off than before.
- Over a third of the group shared that the process triggered negative emotions or flashbacks that in some cases resulted in panic, depression and self-destructive behaviour.
- A majority of the survivors required or wanted counselling related to retraumatization, and stressed the importance of that support being available at the community level.
- Over 40 per cent relied on support from friends and family, or local resources like friendship centres and their communities’ health care programs.
- Almost half of the group said financial compensation made no difference to their well-being and most defined “healing” as seeking ways to directly deal with their trauma by opening up and releasing personal pain.
‘What’s yet to come’
As in the past, said Sharon Rudderham, the health-care providers have no other choice but to improvise with their existing, limited resources, to prevent any “vicarious trauma” for those who are helping the former students, but have no mental health training.
She said Mi’kmaw health officials are examining ways to bring trauma-informed clinicians, who are already working in provincial and federal programs, to their communities.
“To me, it’s almost like a Jordan’s Principle situation,” said Daphne Hutt-MacLeod.
Jordan’s Principle pledges timely access to health services for First Nations children without delays due to jurisdictional squabbles over which level of government will pay for it.
“Right now the main concern is providing the best possible advice and care and support to community members,” she said.
“What worries me the most is what’s yet to come.”