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Native Compensation: A poisoned chalice?

Three years after this article appeared in the June 2010 issue of Reader's Digest Canada, Dale Myra, on the left, was found frozen to death in the Whitehorse night. That's Phillip Gatensby on the right, his friend and counsellor. "I'm sure he is in a much better place now and suffers no more," Phillip told me. " PS, he loved the article."

By Claude Adams

The adjudicator spoke softly, but the questions struck Dale Myra at his core. Myra and his lawyer had prepared months for this session, rehearsing the words, going over his testimony. A Cree native in his early 40s, Myra had never before spoken about being raped in his Yukon residential school, but sitting in a lawyer’s office in Whitehorse, he was being pressed for details. He became nervous and tongue-tied. At times, he broke down. For support, he looked across the room to his friend and counselor, Phillip Gatensby.

By the end of the afternoon, he had told the adjudicator everything, reliving his abuse, episode by painful episode. All that remained was the judgment and the payment. Or so he thought.

A few weeks later, the Canadian government apologized to Myra. This was followed by $265,000, given in two installments. Suddenly, he was rich. The experience, however, had left him gutted. It’s a terrible irony: the money—and what he had to do to get it—made Myra’s life worse.

Myra’s story is not unusual. While there are no reliable statistics, thousands of men and women who were compensated for their mistreatment in the residential schools never received the psychological and emotional help they needed. The money was meant to start their healing, but for many it became a poisoned chalice. By accepting the cash, survivors waived the right to initiate lawsuits against either the government or the churches, (although they are still able to initiate proceeding for more compensation claims based on cases of individual abuse.) And when that money was gone, they had nothing, only their pain and unresolved trauma.

This cycle of pain, payout and more pain is the latest chapter in the sorry history of Canada’s residential schools, which became compulsory for Indian, Metis and Roman Catholic Inuit children in 1920. Separated from their parents, children lost their language, their culture and, in many cases, their sexual innocence. The last of the schools closed in 1996, and by then lawsuits, charging sexual and other abuse, were already in the courts. The federal government, the churches and native groups eventually agreed that survivors should be able to bypass the courts in their bid for compensation. As a result, direct payments and closed hearings were instituted in 2006.

So far, the federal government has paid out $2.05 billion to school survivors; the churches (Presbyterian, Anglican, United and Catholic) have contributed about $100 million of that amount. The money was distributed in two blocks. The lion’s share, called the Common Experience Payment, went to nearly 100,000 former students who simply had to prove they attended one of 139 residential schools. The rest went to compensate survivors who could show they suffered sexual abuse.

Tony Martens, a social worker in Surrey, B.C., whose agency has worked with hundreds of native families, says residential school survivors are especially vulnerable when telling their stories because they’re forced to drop their defenses after decades of shamed silence. “Those defense mechanisms—drugs, alcohol, alienation, denial—probably saved their lives, despite how unhealthy they may be,” Marten says. “When we eliminate those things, in short periods of therapy, we can create somebody who’s likely to become suicidal.” Indeed, Myra tried to kill himself after he revealed the trauma of his school years. “All the things you want to forget in your life, they come back,” he says. “It’s a dirty secret.”

Myra says his lawyer, Laura Cabott, told him where he might get some advice about trauma and managing money, but she didn’t press him on it. He had other ideas anyway. “I can handle it,” he told her. “And if I need to cry, I can go up into the mountains by myself.” Plus, he had his friend Gatensby, whom he could call when things got really bad.

But this friendship, and the mountains, weren’t enough. Over the next several years, Myra burned through his compensation money like a man possessed. He gave $60,000 to the woman raising his son, and spent the rest on epic binges with friends. He became a brawler, spent time in jail, and traveled the province on a drunken odyssey. “Stayed at the Day’s Inn in Vancouver for a while, very high class, more than a hundred dollars a night.” he says. “I would call room service, tell ‘em I need another case of beer and they went down to the liquor store and got it for me. Met some of my cousins, and got them all wasted.” That party lasted two weeks. Once he hit bottom, he tried to slash his wrists.

Today, Myra lives on the streets of Whitehorse with “two cents in my back pocket.” His spiral downwards is mostly a blur. He’s a trained heavy equipment operator, but he’s too damaged by addiction to work. His hands shake when he talks.

Yet lawyer Laura Cabott argues that the media exaggerate stories with bad endings. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years,” she says, “and I’ve had hundreds of clients and I’ve found that generally people do wise things with their money.”

In the Yukon town of Carcross, the sudden arrival of payout money two years ago caused a spike in illegal drug use. Dealers from B.C.’s Lower Mainland swarmed into the area and found ready customers among the newly enriched natives. “There was an enormous influx of crack cocaine,” says criminal justice support worker Mark Stevens. When the money ran out, so did the traffickers. The local addicts went back to what Stevens calls “the drug of choice”—alcohol. Dr. Patricia Bacon, who heads a harm reduction program in Whitehorse, said that when the “gravy train” of government money ran out, dozens of cocaine users had overdosed. Some of them died.

Willard Martin, a First Nations chief in Greenville, B.C., has noticed another phenomenon. “The saddest thing is when those who receive compensation relocate to urban areas where they spend their money and become homeless.” Martin said a popular destination is Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Canada’s most notorious centre of homelessness and drug addiction.

To be sure, many compensation stories are positive. Some recipients paid off debt, bought new homes or fixed up old ones. Aboriginal culture is a sharing culture, and a lot of the payments were distributed among family and friends. Other recipients, like Whitehorse’s Norman Drynock, used their money for their child’s education. “I will watch my daughter graduate. She’s the first one in our family to go from high school to college.”

In Edmonton, survivor Leonard Martial, a small, soft-spoken alcoholic, used his $13,000 compensation to buy clothes, a laptop, food and to help his brother with his bills. For a while he lived in a tent, but the money gave him a financial cushion, and social workers helped him find a small apartment. He also got help to recover from his addiction.

Martial died last February but his resilience and generosity made a strong impression on other residential school survivors. Karen Bruno, manager of Aboriginal services at the Boyle Street Community Services in Edmonton, says Martial was a mentor and icon to the survivors. "Five hundred people attended his funeral. He had a better life in his year and a half with us than he had in his life before." she adds--a tribute to the positive effects of compensation when it is accompanied by long-term counseling and social assistance. But Leonard lived in a big city, where there are numerous social safety nets to help people who seek it. That’s not the case in many of Canada’s outlying areas.

Even if Dale Myra had taken his lawyers advice and had asked for help, he might well have not had timely access to the help he needed in Whitehorse. A local native support group centre says there’s an eight- to 12-month waiting list for professional help in that city. In British Columbia, Dr. Charles Brasfield, a Vancouver-based outreach psychiatrist and psychologist who has worked in native communities for 25 years, says there are perhaps seven or eight qualified trauma counselors - psychiatrists and psychologists – to serve all of British Columbia. As a result, in that province alone, the thousands of residential school survivors, especially in distant rural areas, never get the help they need.

Mike Cachagee of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, executive director of the National Residential School Survivors, is deeply critical of how Canada’s churches and government are dealing with school survivors. “It’s like Pontius Pilate: We compensated them, we apologized, now get them the hell out of here.” Large payments of cash, without effective community-based healing to go with it, Cachagee says, is creating a “culture of substance abuse fueled by money; it’s like throwing gasoline on a fire.” Dr. Brasfield adds: “You don’t fix rape with a dollar bill.” (The NRSS lost its government funding earlier this year. “Basically, they cut us off,” said Cachagee, who claims it is because he is “so vociferous.”)

Even the lawyers working on behalf of survivors say that the money by itself has little therapeutic value. “We give them money because there’s really nothing else to give them,” says Regina lawyer Tony Merchant, whose law firm has represented thousands of First Nations litigants. But Merchant said it would be “paternalistic” to tell the recipients how to spend or invest their money.

Survivors like Willie Blackwater of Chilliwack, B.C., say Ottawa needs to stop looking for quick results. “It took generations to destroy us,” he says, “and they want us to heal in five years or less.” Seriously traumatized sex-abuse victims, says Martens, need months and even years of therapy before real healing starts

Residential school survivors suffered a further blow in March when Ottawa said it would cease funding an organization specifically established to target the trauma of residential schools: the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Set up in 1998, the AHF supported 134 innovative community-based programs, some of which incorporated traditional healing activities.

Now, says AHF president Georges Erasmus, most will disappear. “In many areas, including the already under-serviced regions of the North, one-of-a-kind programs developed over years will be gone,” He says AHF was “the best hope we have for a better future.”

While cutting off the AHL in its 2010 budget, the government did set aside a further $199 million for what it called “higher than expected funding needs” for residential schools survivors. Health Canada says it is committed to making sure all former students and their families are able to get “effective and culturally safe mental health and emotional support.” To that end, it offers 500 “service providers”—native elders and healers, community-based mental health workers, psychiatrists and psychologists.

Some First Nations communities, like Alkali Lake in B.C. and Hollow Water in Manitoba, have their own unique native-run programs to deal with the legacy of residential schools. But even these programs are few and far between. And many compensated former students end up worse off in their communities.

One such example is 53 year-old Ben Pratt. Born in Lestock, Saskatchewan, he spent his adolescence in the Gordon Residential School, where he says he was raped. Thirty years later, he told his story and he was given $46,000 in compensation. Pratt was ostracized, he says, by people in his community who accused him of accepting “arse money.” A born-again Christian, his marriage broke up and he turned to alcohol. Pratt ended up without a family, without friends, and addicted. The money was gone within a year. He says that if he had things to do over again, he would “never ever have come forward” with his story about childhood abuse.

If the government money is such a curse, why do survivors continue to apply for it? Phillip Gatensby says the answer is simple: Poverty. Many aboriginal Canadians are so poor the promise of a large amount of money is irresistible. Also, many believe that if they finally break the silence of their abuse, they may also be released from its deep and lingering pain. Unhappily, Gatensby says, both these “releases” are often not achievable because so many of the survivors don’t have the appropriate psychological expertise available, nor a strong community to nurture and sustain them.

Critics of the payout program say this is where the federal government and Canada’s aboriginal leaders need to focus their attention—on programs that restore the “caring functional communities” that can help people like Myra rebuild a life, programs that promote sobriety and strong families, and programs that give jobs and dignity back to people like Pratt.

When asked by Reader’s Digest about the shortcomings of the native compensation payments, Margo Geduld, a senior communications advisor with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, would say only that the federal government “realizes that the journey to healing is difficult for some former students.” “And that,” she added, “is why we continue to work with partners to ensure former students have access to culturally appropriate health support.”

Native leaders say healing is essential not only for the survivors of the residential schools but for the next generation of aboriginal Canadians. “If Canada fails to take up these opportunities in good faith,” says AHF president Georges Erasmus,” the youth will inherit the legacy of this failure, just as surely as if they had been in the residential schools themselves.”

For Dale Myra and those like him, though, it’s still all talk. As he walks out into the sub-zero Whitehorse night, Myra’s looking for his familiar support group: his street friends, nicknamed Timbits, Razzle and Rockin’ Robin. One of them will have a bottle of wine. Later, a friendly volunteer will be holding Bed #4 for him at the local Salvation Army shelter. Until something better comes along, this is Myra’s only community of compassion.


On a cold February day in Winnipeg last year, a grey-haired man shuffled into the Siloam Mission homeless. He introduced himself to staff as William Woodford, and handed over an envelope. Inside was a bank draft for $40,000.

Woodford, an aboriginal man in his mid-80s who had spent his childhood at the Elkhorn Indian Residential School, came back a few days later with an additional $10,000. He said he wanted to share his government settlement money with people needier than him.

Shelter staff said the money would be used for emergency beds and meals. Most of the people who use their services are aboriginals themselves, and many are school survivors like Woodford.

There are other examples of altruism among First Nations recipients of apology money. In Whitehorse, a group of 11 survivors from the Yukon and Northern B.C. communities pooled 10% of their compensation money to help launch a local organization called CAIRS, that provides therapy for survivors, along with woodworking, metalworking and other handicraft programs. The 11, who call themselves The Trailblazers, wish to remain anonymous.

And there are other compensation stories with more happy endings. Some recipients paid off debt, bought new homes or fixed up old ones. Aboriginal culture is a sharing culture, and a lot of the payments were distributed among family and friends. Other recipients, like Whitehorse’s Norman Drynock, used their money for their child’s education. “I will watch my daughter graduate. She’s the first one in our family to go from high school to college.”