It has been nearly one year since Cassidy Caron – the president of the Métis National Council, which represents the governments of the Métis Nation in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia – travelled to Rome to seek an apology from Pope Francis and the Vatican for the Catholic Church’s role in Indian residential schools.
Since that time, the Pope has apologized, completed a historic “penitential pilgrimage” in Canada and even described the residential school system as a genocide. (Though it should be noted he didn’t say the word “genocide” until reporter Brittany Hobson, a member of Long Plain First Nation, specifically asked him about it on the plane from Iqaluit back to Rome.)
But Ms. Caron is still waiting for acknowledgment and compensation for survivors who attended the Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school in northern Saskatchewan. The school existed from the 1820s to 1976, and former attendees have shared stories of abuse and discrimination there – yet Île-à-la-Crosse, which was located in a Métis community of the same name, was not among the 139 schools listed in 2007 by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, which laid out compensation for those schools’ survivors. The federal government has argued that it was left out because Île-à-la-Crosse predated the federal residential school system, and was operated by the Roman Catholic Church, without federal support.
“Île-à-la-Crosse is one of the older schools and saw through seven generations of Métis children,” says Ms. Caron. “It did the same harms to our people, taking culture, language, ways of being.” She noted that the school did receive funding from Ottawa, but that it was primarily funded by Saskatchewan and the church.
“The survivors from Île-à-la-Crosse have been advocating for longer than I’ve been alive, to have that recognition. It is more than getting a settlement payment – it is getting their stories believed, that they went through the same trauma as other IRS survivors,” she says.
Two legal claims have since come forward. One class-action suit was filed in 2005, but was never certified, making survivors feel like their interests were being fought for, even though nothing was happening. Recently, though, a new class-action lawsuit has been launched on behalf of all of the school’s survivors – Métis, First Nations and Inuit alike. The plaintiffs are seeking compensation from the Canadian and Saskatchewan governments for their roles in the schools’ operation and for breaching their legal duties to survivors.
The Métis residential school experience is not as widely known, and it has a complicated history. After the North-West Resistance, Indian Affairs minister Clifford Sifton said that Métis children should go to residential schools, but this policy was not always followed. Some Métis children were kept from attending federally funded schools as they were seen as “civilized” enough; others were forced to go as authorities felt they needed to be saved from “the Indian mode of life” and “from becoming outcasts and menaces to society.”
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops have a role to play here. The Pope instructed the CCCB to keep working with the Métis National Council last year, but Ms. Caron has not seen that truly happen. Just because they “sent the Pope to Canada, doesn’t get their involvement off the hook,” she says.
Once again, we see survivors of Canada’s genocidal system having to appeal to the courts in order to get any type of justice or recognition that the sexual, physical and moral abuse that happened did actually occur. The survivors of Île-à-la-Crosse need to resort to the threats of lawsuits in order to get the Canadian and Saskatchewan governments to the negotiation table.
Ms. Caron and survivors have had emotional meetings with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, but they have not resulted in action. And every time survivors have to plead their case, they are forced to go through their private pain all over again, retelling stories of horrific abuses in the hopes that someone is going to finally pay attention. She acknowledges that Mr. Miller shows a “willingness to move on this,” and that he has described it as a “priority,” but that the Saskatchewan government appears to be holding things up.
Instead of forcing survivors to advocate for themselves and their families, Ottawa could do more to insist Saskatchewan get to the table and negotiate; instead, as in the Robinson-Huron Treaty case in which 21 First Nations are pursuing unpaid annuities from the Ontario and federal governments, Canada has been all too happy to throw its hands up when a provincial partner proves difficult.
Canada must stop being a smiling bystander. It is beyond time for the federal government to force all groups to the table and give the remaining survivors the respect and compensation that is owed to them.