Skip to main content

Thousands of native children suffered sexual abuse in Indian residential schools, newly disclosed figures show - a human tragedy so pervasive it's being called "monstrous."

The federal government has quietly paid out more than $350-million in abuse settlements over the last decade, the majority for sexual abuse, to 7,011 former students.

Several thousand more claims for sexual abuse at the hands of church and school officials have been filed over the last year under a 2006 agreement to compensate surviving students, the government and victims' lawyers say.

Both sides predict about 12,000 fresh compensation claims in total will be filed under the agreement - and that the "vast majority" will be for child sexual abuse.

All told, the figures suggest that at least one of every five students suffered sexual abuse at the schools, established in the 19th century to assimilate First Nations children and strip them of their aboriginal culture and language.

"It's horrible, it's monstrous," said Michael Cachagee, executive director and former president of a national group that helps former students.

Liberal MP Todd Russell, an aboriginal, said the numbers were shocking.

"In meeting residential school survivors, I mean across the country, I am not surprised at the percentage - but when you say it as a number, that is astounding."

Mr. Russell said he's heard many accounts of sexual abuse in discussions as a member of the Anglican Council of Indigenous People.

The high rate of sexual abuse suggests the isolated schools, which paid teachers and other staff poorly and failed to screen them properly, likely attracted pedophiles who saw the dismal institutions as a "gold mine," said one lawyer involved in past litigation on behalf of students.

Court evidence in lawsuits by former students suggests the churches that ran the schools on behalf of Ottawa may have transferred sex offenders to different locations to protect them and to prevent word leaking out about the extent of sexual abuse, the lawyer said.

Another lawyer, lead counsel in court proceedings that led to judicial approval of the 2006 compensation agreement, agreed.

"You've got an extremely vulnerable group of children who are isolated from their parents, who are dehumanized, who have no one to turn to, and they're in remote locations and you've got sub-par teachers," said Kirk Baert of Toronto.

"What better recipe could you have for exploitation than that? It's like a checklist of all the things you would need to have it happen a lot."

Mr. Baert also agreed the schools actively suppressed evidence of the abuse.

"They used various forms of intimidation to silence anyone who complained."

The federal government began negotiating the 2006 deal in May 2005 after facing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of roughly 80,000 surviving students claiming a total of $36-billion in damages.

Under the agreement, Ottawa will pay up to $1.9-billion to former students as compensation for simply being forced to attend the schools, separate from the abuse claims.

"They are expecting there to be 10,000 to 12,000, roughly, sexual-abuse claimants paid at the end of the day, so they are big numbers," said lawyer Darcy Merkur, who compiled a historical affidavit for legal work and fees for a consortium of 19 law firms in the class action.

James Ward, a Justice Department lawyer acting as general counsel for an Indian Affairs branch that was responsible for the issue, agreed "the majority" of the new claims are expected to be for sexual abuse.

Of the 7,011 claims in the first wave, 2,369 of 3,799 settled under a dispute resolution process the government established in 2003 involved sexual abuse, a spokesperson for the Indian Affairs Department said.

And virtually all 3,097 settled prior to that through litigation involved sexual abuse, says a lawyer who took part in the lawsuits. Time limits to sue for physical assault are more restrictive.

Another 133 claims settled so far under the new agreement involved sexual abuse, said the spokesperson, Patricia Valladao.

Of 33 affidavits from former male and female students sworn as part of the proceedings that led to the court approval of the 2006 agreement, 25 included claims of sexual abuse.

The grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, said aboriginal negotiators and leaders expected a high number of sexual abuse claims under the settlement agreement.

"Don't forget that the initial claims that precipitated all of this were for sexual abuse," said Mr. Fontaine. "We anticipated this would be like opening the floodgates."

The Liberal government of the day issued a reconciliation statement following a scathing report in 1996 from a royal commission on aboriginal peoples, which included a chapter on residential schools.

The reconciliation statement included an official apology to residential school survivors, followed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's statement of apology on behalf of Canada in Parliament last June.

A spokesman for the United Church said it has been named in 1,100 claims, but he said the church had not done a "statistical analysis" to tabulate the number of claims for sexual abuse.

A spokesperson for the Roman Catholic church could not be reached and the Anglican Church of Canada did not respond to a request for an interview.

Interact with The Globe