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Politics Ottawa poised to compensate Indigenous survivors of physical, sexual abuse at 700 day schools

Day school survivor Garry McLean, photographed in Ottawa on Dec.5, 2018, is the lead plaintiff in the case.

James Park/The Globe and Mail

Canada is taking another step to acknowledge the centuries of harm done to Indigenous people by agreeing to compensate those who were abused as children while attending one of roughly 700 government-funded day schools.

The agreement has yet to be ratified and more details, including the range of compensation that will be awarded, will be made public early in the new year. But it is estimated that there are between 120,000 and 140,000 former students of the day schools who are still alive, and the federal government has not set a limit on the total amount it will pay out.

As with residential schools, Indigenous parents were forced to send their children to the day schools which operated across the country starting in 1920, and were legislated under the Indian Act. Those who refused were penalized.

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And, as with residential schools, day-school students faced a wide range of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Punishments for not speaking English lead to a widespread loss of language and culture.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Garry McLean, now 67, who attended the Dog Creek Indian Day School in Manitoba along with seven of his younger brothers and sisters. Two older siblings went to residential schools.

Just four of the 10 children in his family are alive today. Those who died did not know how to deal with the abuses they suffered at the schools, said Mr. McLean. “Most of them got caught up in addictions,” he said in an interview on Parliament Hill on Wednesday.

Mr. McLean, an Ojibwa man, has been fighting this case since 2006, the year that the largest class-action settlement ever awarded in Canada was reached with former students of the residential schools.

“The harm that was done to me was done to thousands of other kids. And my mishoomis, my grandfather, and my aunts and uncles said you can’t let it go, you have to fight it,” Mr. McLean said, as a tear tracked down his cheek.

Mr. McLean attended the school between the ages of six and 11. Of the 32 children who were in his class, he said only four survived.

He remembers his first day of school very well. He arrived speaking no English. “The bell rang at 9 o’clock and I got a strap at 9:05 because I was supposed to say ‘good morning’ even though I didn’t know how to say good morning,” Mr. McLean said.

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Children who wet themselves because they did not know how to ask to go to the bathroom were made to stand at the front of the class in their wet clothes to be humiliated, he said. When one child in a class made a mistake, all were lined to be given three straps on their hands. And, he said, he and 14 other boys were repeatedly sexually abused by a nun when they were 11 years old.

The case was certified as a class action by the Federal Court in June, and the new deal is expected to be ratified in the spring.

The court will then appoint an administrator, and an adjudication process will be established, much like the one created in the residential schools settlement, to determine how much each claimant is owed. The compensation will be awarded based on the type and magnitude of the harm that each former student suffered.

Robert Winogron of Gowlings WLG, the Toronto-based law firm that took over the case in 2016 after it had sat dormant for a number of years, has travelled across Canada with other members of his firm to hear stories of day school survivors.

“The abuses were the same as at residential schools,” Mr. Winogron said. “The difference is they went home at night, but the opportunities for same types of abuses were there during the day.”

The children were not allowed to speak their own languages in the schools – their mouths were washed with soap when words in Indigenous languages were heard in the halls – and they were warned not to speak their languages when they returned home. As a result, Mr. McLean says only two of the children in his family can speak Saulteaux, the language of his parents. “They couldn’t wash it out of me,” he said with a grin.

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But the damage that was done to him and his family was profound, Mr. McLean said. His father once set foot on the school grounds and was arrested. “That’s how much control they had over us.”

“It’s important that the government of Canada recognizes the wrong that they did," he said, “It doesn’t matter how much money that we get. It will never replace what we lost.”

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