They suffered the worst sexual and physical abuse as children.
Now, survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools — and even their health service providers — say not enough is being done to help them heal.
As part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, Canada holds an obligation to provide mental health services to residential school survivors and family members.
Administered by the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development of Canada (AANDC) and Health Canada, known as the Indian Resolution Schools Resolution Health Supports Program, it is meant to support survivors going through the Independent Assessment Process (IAP).
An out-of-court method, the IAP compensates claims of sexual and physical abuse for survivors who attended a residential school, part of the 2007 settlement agreement.
Survivors and families have the option to tap into mental health services or cultural supports such as Elders and traditional healers. It is also known as ‘future care costs.’
Services are available up to the amount of $10,000 but survivors and survivor’s family members have to be eligible by Health Canada and use supports approved by the department. The money is to be used for counselling sessions, travel, accommodation and for any escorts a survivor may need.
But some survivors and even practitioners claim there are far too many gaps in the service provided, if provided at all, especially in the north.
Joan Charlebois, a psychotherapist based in Timmins, says she is working at maximum case load. Almost 100 per cent of her clients are former residential school students along the James Bay Coast.
“In northern Ontario we’ve been under serviced as far as mental health and medical,” says Charlebois.
“When you look at the degree and the severity and the pervasiveness of the abuse that came out of St.Anne’s in particular, you’re going to have a higher percentage of people who had been adversely affected.”
St. Anne’s was one of the country’s most notorious residential schools based in Fort Albany First Nation. Former students allege an electrical chair was used by staff.
While receiving 1-2 calls per day from people asking for services, Charlebois said she is unable to take on more clients. She says that’s leaving survivors feeling re-victimized and helpless.
Bernie Schmidt is CEO of Weebeebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA), a regional hospital servicing six James Bay coastal communities. Schmidt says the region needs more services for survivors.
“There is a significance issue along the coast and we’re seeing an increased demand for services as a result,” says Schmidt about people healing their wounds than ever before.
WAHA provides mental health services and cultural services in the north through Health Canada’s program. Despite the demand in the north, WAHA’s funding dollars availability is capped and non-permanent.
Schmidt also says clients have to enter a court house building to receive mental health services – a ‘double-whammy’ he calls it because of the stigma found in some communities.
Although Health Canada utilizes more than 30 professional counsellors on contract who fly into northern communities like those along the James Bay Coast, not everyone is comfortable with this.
Suzanne Desrosiers, a lawyer based in Timmins who works with IAP claimants, said many survivors want their privacy or would like someone from their own community versus an outsider.
As for elderly survivors it is more difficult. Most times they have to fly out of their community with an escort for a few days for an hour of counselling. Culture shock is also experienced.
The biggest problem for some is Health Canada dictating how people will heal and by whom.
“There are a lot of people who can provide counselling but again it has to be counselling methods recognized by the government,” says Edmund Metatawabin, a survivor of St. Anne’s Residential School.
Metatawabin sees the value in spending time on the land as a way of healing. He spends time with survivors and has even taken youth for far away trips such as the Paquataskamik Project.
He believes programs such as this could be invaluable to survivors and youth within First
Nation communities given the rippling effects of the residential school system.
Health Canada does not providing funding for these purposes, they said in an e-mail statement.
But recently the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat called for proposals from groups of former students seeking projects that support healing and reconciliation.
Again, several restrictions apply.
Groups must be incorporated or associated with an incorporated non-profit group, and all members of groups must have had their claim accepted through the IAP system.
“We’re finding that we’re getting more requests for traditional healers and it seems to be moving down to the younger [generation] as well,” says Schmidt.
Joe Tippeneskum, a traditional healer from Attawapiskat who also works with residential school survivors says there vast differences between ‘outside’ counselling methods.
“They don’t’ understand the history of our people,” says Tippeneskum.
A national, 24-hour toll-free crisis line provided to survivors administered by AANDC has also been criticized.
Michael Cachagee, a residential school survivor and advocate recalls early instances when Elders were frequently hung up on when they used the service.
Promoted as providing culturally trained Indigenous counsellors, currently there are over 20 full-time and part-time employees who run the crisis line and only 10 workers are self-identified as First Nations, Metis, or Inuit.
Cachagee and Joan Charlebois worry about what happens to survivors when the mental health program comes to an end in 2016.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I still get triggered during a certain time of the day, or looking at a sunset, or hearing a train,” says Cachagee.
A Health Canada representative said the department will not let the survivors down. The department plans to have something come into effect. But no one knows what that something is yet.
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