The good news is that survivors of the residential school system are finally being compensated after many years of fighting with the federal government for just recourse for the century of abuse they suffered in the church-run schools.

The bad news is that, much like recent government programs from passports to gun registration, it’s not coming off without considerable difficulties. Two months after the program opened for business, cheques are just now starting to trickle out and some payments are lower than they should be.

Not that the compensation fund isn’t useful for the government. The Montreal Gazette has reported that the Tory government borrowed $82.6 million from the fund, injecting cash into other programs. But a day after the story ran November 16, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl denied this had ever happened.

Improprieties aside, said NDP Indian Affairs critic Jean Crowder, “There are still some very serious problems going on. One of them is, of course, the speed of payment. There are a significant number of people who are saying that they still don’t have their payments. And then when they are getting them, they don’t match the formula.”

Crowder said that, in some cases, the payment per year for the number of years that they were in a residential school did not add up. “And there is no explanation that is coming along with the cheque to explain the difference in the calculation.”

Though the government originally proposed that the cheques would be in the mail within 30 to 60 days of the application date, many who applied for their funds September 19 have yet to receive their funding. It has been estimated that the government has already received 74,000 applications.

“They should have ensured that all of the resources were in place to rapidly process payment because people have been waiting for far too long,” said Crowder. “They have not resourced this properly to ensure rapid pay outs.”

Crowder suggested that those who have not received their payments in a timely manner should contact their MPs. Because there is already a backlog in the system, she added, there is no time like the present to apply.

How it’s supposed to work

Since September 19, residential school survivors have been eligible to file for Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement Funds. In some instances people may apply on the behalf of those who died before the program came into effect.

Everyone who lived within the confines of a residential school or a federal hostel is eligible for the Common Experience Payment, provided that the school or hostel they attended is on the federal government’s list. For this kind of compensation, survivors are supposed to receive $10,000 for the first year of residential school they attended and an additional $3,000 for every year or partial school year that followed. The same applies for the hostels.

The forms and a guide to help you apply for this compensation are available online at the Service Canada website.

“They are simple,” explained Diane Soroka, an attorney who specializes in Aboriginal law. “You include the name you were known by at the school. For women who have been married and changed their name, they are going to need their marriage certificates to show their name change. You list the names of the schools and the years that you went approximately and you send it off with the identification. If they want either an original birth certificate or a photocopy of two other pieces of identification, it’s all explained quite clearly in the form and the attached document that tells you how to fill it out.”

The institution in question has to be on the list of recognized residential schools and hostels and there are some that have yet to be added. Soroka is fighting to add three hostels in Mistissini to the list. She is quite confident those institutions will be included, but the process may take more than six months.

“People who were in those hostels have to wait until they get put on the list and we will let them know as soon as it happens. But it will probably take quite a while because they [Indian Affairs] are inundated,” Soroka said.

The second form of payment is the Independent Assessment Process (IAP). It accepts claims for certain types of abuse that will win a victim additional compensation. It covers any kind of sexual abuse, be it inappropriate touching or kissing and any kind of sexual aggression. It will also compensate for severe physical abuse.

The physical abuse would have caused unconsciousness, burning, or left scars and permanent injuries. Other criteria includes the need at the time of medical attention, and/or several days of bed rest or rest in the infirmary. Corporal punishment, such as “the strap,” is already covered within the common experience fund.

“And then there is a third form of abuse which is a bit of an odd category – it’s called ‘Other Wrongful Acts,’ which led to severe psychological harm,” said Soroka. “It encompasses other forms of abuse such as those who were singled out by supervisors and subjected to ridicule, humiliation, and verbal abuse to the point where the victim had a severe psychological breakdown.”

A separate form must be filled out for an IAP and is a much more complicated process that requires legal assistance. Soroka says, however, that it is not as complicated as going to trial and the Canadian government is willing to pay for a portion of the legal fees. The way money is awarded through an IAP is based on a grid system with levels of abuse that have a certain range of points awarded.

“There are a couple of other things that get looked at, like consequential income loss,” said Soroka. If an individual was underemployed or unemployed because they left the school too early or they were traumatized and it led to a lifetime of income loss, these things are taken into consideration.

The range of compensation could be from $5,000 for a relatively minor instance of touching, up to $275,000 for abuse that caused very severe psychological harm. “You have people who are psychotic and who are basically unable to function and if that is the case they would get something close to the maximum,” said Soroka.

Filing for the dead

If you have a relative who survived the residential schools and they were alive up until May 30, 2005, the executor can file for the Common Experience funds on behalf of the deceased person’s estate. The family of the deceased must select a representative who will do the filing and distribute the funds. The executor does not need to be a relative, nor does the family need to decide on them unanimously.

“It’s not that complex but it has to be done,” said Soroka. “What people have to understand is that the person who is making the claim, is doing it on behalf of all of the heirs. That money does not belong to him.”

Deceased individuals are not eligible for the IAP compensation.

The deadline for making the applications for the common experience payment and the IAP is four years from the original filing date, September 19, 2011.

It’s not enough for some

For Paul Dixon of Waswanipi, who is a Cree trapper and vocal residential school survivor, the program is just another case of the government doling out too little and way too late.

“Just 10 minutes ago I saw my brother John and he said, ‘Look, I got my cheque, but you know what? They still owe me,”’ said Dixon. His brother complained that approximately $9,000 was missing and that the envelope he received provided very little explanation other than that he should apply for the rest of his funding sometime in January.

“Several people got their cheques this morning and I just told them that I was so happy for them. For a crime of the century like that, I think it’s the cheapest deal on the planet,” said Dixon.

Dixon argued that the deal is insufficient because it does not include his parents, who were threatened with prison sentences among other things if they did not hand over their children to the schools.

“When my father talked to other Elders he would refer to us as the stolen people because he was a victim himself. His children were stolen. It was only in the past 15 years that he has been telling me bits and pieces, I did not know that my mother cried from September to June and I found out that my dad cried a lot too,” said Dixon.

Though no amount of money will ever make up for what Paul Dixon longs for most, a childhood that should have been spent traditionally, in the company of his extended family, he is now facing something much worse: losing family members, mainly to diabetes.

Dixon spoke of how he had just lost his relative Kenny Dixon, who died at the age of 54, and how so many have waited so long for this compensation that they are passing away long before they even heard an apology on the behalf on the churches or the government.

“The government is waiting so long on this and so the government has won. They saved a lot of money. They saved because our people are dying.”