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Local natives recall pain of residential schooling
Compensation agreement 'huge decision'
 
Jason van Rassel
Calgary Herald

CREDIT: Dean Bicknell, Calgary Herald
Rita Sweetgrass cries while talking about abuse she suffered at a native residential school in southern Alberta. A compensation agreement between the government and the Assembly of First Nations was announced Monday.

Hope that justice may be closer than ever for aboriginals forced into residential schools mingled with tears Tuesday as Rita Sweetgrass remembered the pain of being separated from her family.

Like thousands of First Nations and Inuit children who were sent to residential schools for decades, Sweetgrass endured physical and sexual abuse during her 10 years at St. Mary's residential school on the Blood Reserve near Cardston.

Between ages six and 16, the only time Sweetgrass saw her family was during the two-month summer break.

"Growing up, we never learned to love, we never learned about family life, family relationships," she said, tears welling up in her eyes as she sat in the living room of her northeast Calgary home.

Sweetgrass, 61, is among thousands suing the federal government for abuse suffered at residential schools, which were run on Ottawa's behalf by church organizations.

But until the signing of an agreement with the Assembly of First Nations on Monday, the federal government has never been willing to consider compensating the 86,000 residential school survivors who weren't able to demonstrate specific instances of abuse.

The announcement set out no dollar figures, but established a deadline of March 31, 2006 for reaching a compensation deal and named former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci as the government's chief negotiator.

"This is a huge decision by the government to go into negotiations, and also because of who they've chosen," said Calgary lawyer Vaughn Marshall, who represents 600 individual claimants who have filed lawsuits in Alberta.

Monday's pact was followed up Tuesday by separate agreements between the federal government and major aboriginal groups giving them a direct say in native policy development.

The deals came after a historic meeting between Prime Minister Paul Martin's cabinet and representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Metis National Council, Native Women's Association of Canada and Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.

The agreements are supposed to better define aboriginal rights that are recognized in the Constitution, but any specific spending announcements for housing, health or education aren't expected until a first ministers conference in the fall.

Sweetgrass said offering compensation to every residential school survivor may be a small step toward repairing the abuse, the effects of which are felt to this day -- separating children from a loving family and placing them in a harsh, foreign institution.

"We can't bring our children up right because we weren't taught respect and love," she said.

"Maybe my people, my children, my grandchildren have a better chance to get through life without hate."

Sweetgrass gave up custody of her five children and "ran away" to Vancouver in the '70s. What followed were years of anger, depression and several "near misses" with suicide.

In 1990, Sweetgrass decided she could no longer live with memories of being molested by a priest at St. Mary's. She contacted the RCMP.

It was a painful reckoning, but it also started a healing process: the priest was punished after pleading guilty in court, and Sweetgrass sought counselling and found comfort reconnecting with her culture.

While money can't replace the personal healing Sweetgrass had to go through, she said the government must also own up to its actions.

"At least there may be some acknowledgement of the pain and the deaths," she said.

Calgary MP Jim Prentice said the government has badly bungled attempts to settle abuse claims out of court, with lengthy delays and costly bureaucracy.

"This is an admission of failure on the part of the government regarding the process so far," said Prentice, the Conservative party's critic for Indian Affairs.

While the out-of-court processes remain mired in delays, huge class-action lawsuits against the government are gaining steam.

An Ontario Court of Appeal ruling Tuesday cleared the way for a 6,000-member national suit -- which includes the claimants represented by Vaughn -- to go ahead.

"(The government) has stumbled along and the class actions are driving the agenda," Prentice said.

jvanrassel@theherald.canwest.com

© The Calgary Herald 2005




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