Recognizing Colonialism in Education: the Federal Indian Day Schools Settlement

Maya GunnarssonBy Maya Gunnarsson

While interning for the Akwesasne Justice Department this summer, one of my tasks has been to help provide information to community members on the claims process for the Federal Indian Day Schools (IDS) Settlement.

When talking to family members and friends about the work I am doing, I have found that the most common question I hear is “What are the Indian Day Schools?”.  While the majority of Canadians are now aware of the history of Indian Residential Schools (IRS) in Canada, many have never heard of the IDS, which ran from the 1860s until 2000. The goal of the IDS was the same as that of the IRS—to strip Indigenous children of their cultural identity and assimilate them into the dominant culture.  Similar to IRS, children at the IDS were prohibited from speaking their language, and many experienced verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.  The principal difference between the IDS and IRS, is that children at the IDS returned home every day, rather than living at the schools.

In 2006, a settlement agreement was made between survivors of IRS, the churches that operated them, and the federal government. In addition to financially compensating former students for the harms they suffered at IRS, the settlement agreement mandated the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).  The TRC gathered statements from survivors and issuing a final report that documented the experiences of IRS survivors.  Released in 2015, the TRC’s Final Report included 94 Calls to Action, aimed at governments, educational institutions, churches, and the corporate sector, intended to redress the legacy of residential schools and to advance the reconciliation process.

Over the past 5 years, many of the TRC’s Calls to Action have begun to be implemented, and while there may be fair criticisms levelled at the government for their commitment to implementing all the recommendations (for example, this Yellowhead Institute’s assessment found that only 9 Calls to Action had been completed by the end of 2019), it is undeniable that Canadians’ knowledge of the history of IRS has significantly increased as a result of the TRC’s final report.  However, while many non-Indigenous Canadians are now aware of legacy of IRS, the same cannot be said about the Federal Indian Day Schools that ran concurrently with the residential schools.

Gary McLean (1951-2019) was the lead plaintiff in the Indian Day Schools lawsuit against the Federal Government. Source: APTN News.

 In 2009, Gary McLean, a survivor of the IDS, launched a class action seeking compensation for the harms suffered by students at IDS. In 2019, a settlement agreement was reached, and in January 2020 the claims process for survivors was opened.  The settlement process differs significantly from that of the IRS.  In 2018, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (the successor to the TRC) released a report detailing how the IRS settlement process retraumatized many survivors.  One of the biggest ways in which former IRS students felt traumatized by the settlement process was the sheer number of times they had to recount the traumatic experiences they had in the residential schools. Survivors were only compensated for the harm they experienced if they provided “sufficient evidence,” and the whole process felt very adversarial for many.  Further, speaking about the abuse they endured in IRS triggered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for many survivors, which stopped them from providing statements. The full disclosure required of survivors prevented many from testifying at all and accessing the settlements they were entitled to.

In response to this process and negative experience of IRS survivors, former IDS students are not required to provide any testimony to receive the level 1 claim amount—they must simply identify the school they attended and the years they attended it.  For those survivors who are eligible for claim levels 2-5 (those who experienced any form of sexual abuse, or physical abuse causing serious harm), they must provide a written narrative that details the events that led to the harm they suffered.  They must also provide some form of proof that they attended the school (e.g. report cards, class photos, yearbooks, etc.) and for claim levels 4 and 5, their narratives must be accompanied by some other form of corroborating records (such as medical, dental, or therapy records).  However, for those unable to attain such records, survivors can submit a sworn declaration in lieu.  Survivors will not be cross-examined or asked to verbally repeat their testimony.  Further, there is a limit on the number of cases that Canada can challenge the eligibility for.  In these cases, the government may provide supplemental factual information regarding eligibility to the Claims Administrator; however, they do not engage directly with the survivor.  The claims process will remain open until July 2022, and it remains to be seen whether survivors will have a more positive experience with this claims process than with the IRS settlement claims process.

In addition to the compensation for former students, the IDS settlement also outlines the establishment of a Legacy Fund, to which Canada has agreed to provide $200 million. The purpose of this fund will be to fund projects that commemorate, provide wellness and healing, or promote the restoration of Indigenous languages and culture. The Legacy Fund was initially estimated to be up and running by fall 2020; however, due to uncertainties caused by COVID-19, this will likely be delayed.  Whenever the Fund is ready to provide grants to Legacy Projects, I hope we will begin to see an increase in the average Canadian’s awareness of IDS and their legacy.  This summer I have informed many of my friends and family members about the history of IDS in Canada—hopefully in a few summers time, Canadians will be just as aware of Indian Day Schools and their impacts as they are now of Indian Residential Schools.


What happens to a community divided by an international border when the border closes?

Maya GunnarssonBy Maya Gunnarsson

Like most other communities in the world right, the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted the Mohawk community of Akwesasne.  However, while many of the disruptions to daily life Akwesasronon (Akwesasne community members) are experiencing may be familiar to outsiders, such as the need to practice physical distancing, working from home, and wearing a mask in public, one way in which this pandemic has impacted Akwesasne is quite unique: the Canada-US border closure.

A Community Divided by the Border

Akwesasne, a community of approximately 13,000 people, straddles Ontario, Quebec, and New York—a jurisdictional headache at the best of times. Larissa Parker, last summer’s intern at the Akwesassne Justice Department, blogged about Akwesasne’s unique jurisdictional challenges and the impact of the international border on Akwesasronon. To further complicate things, the part of Akwesasne that is in Quebec is an exclave—meaning it is only accessible by land via the US. In short, crossing the Canada-US border is an unavoidable daily reality for those living and working in Akwesasne.

Source: Meredith Holigroski (The Walrus)

All non-essential land travel between the Canada and the US has been shut down since March 21, 2020, as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19.  Initially announced as a month-long measure, this restriction on cross-border travel has been extended 4 times already, with predictions that it will stay in place for the foreseeable future. Further, anyone entering Canada from abroad is required by law to quarantine for 14 days. This has meant that my internship with the Akwesasne Justice Department has had to become remote. The Justice Department office is located in the Quebec exclave part of Akwesasne, meaning I would need to cross the border and report entry twice to get to the office and twice to get home every day.  Although there are exemptions to this border closure for critical healthcare and infrastructure workers who need to cross the border to get to work every day, my internship does not qualify for one. Closing the border and requiring 14 days of self-isolation following any border crossing for Akwesasne residents, however, is simply not practicable.  Residents need to cross the border to buy groceries, go to work, and access essential services such as banks, daycares, and healthcare providers.

Indian Status and the Right to Freely Pass

From the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the Jay Treaty of 1795, to the Treaty of Ghent in 1812, the US and Britain signed a number of agreements establishing part of what is now the Canada-US border.  These agreements are ultimately what led to the community of Akwesasne being divided across jurisdictional boundaries.  Also included in the Jay Treaty and then reaffirmed in the Treaty of Ghent, is a recognition of Indigenous peoples’ right to freely pass the border. However, while the US recognizes the Jay Treaty, Canada does not.  That being said, residents of Akwesasne have been granted an exception under the current border closure, so long as they identify themselves at the border with their Indian Status card.  The majority of Akwesasronon have Indian Status, meaning they are allowed to continue to cross the international border that runs through their territory throughout this pandemic.  However, those without a Status Card have been left stranded in the part of the territory where they live.

Border officials are only accepting Indian Status Cards (issued by the federal government), and not Tribal Identification Cards (issued by the St Regis Mohawk Tribal Council on the American side of Akwesasne) to cross the border.  Indian Status eligibility is set out by the Indian Act, and has been subject to many criticisms due to its history of gender discrimination, its criteria that focuses on “blood quantum,” and the fact that it gives Ottawa the right to determine who is an “Indian,” rather than First Nations, themselves. This requirement means that Akwesasronon who are accepted as Mohawk by their community but are not eligible for or do not currently have a Status Card are unable to traverse their territory freely. These individuals are subject to all the border restrictions currently in place for other Canadian and American citizens. These restrictions, in turn, are severing family bonds in the community.

Many families in the region have a mix of Status and non-Status family members.  As of 2011, only about three-quarters of First Nations people in Canada were Status Indians, although Akwesasne-specific data is not available. The child of a Status Indian and a non-Status Indian or non-Indigenous person may or may not be eligible for Indian Status, depending on which provision of the Indian Act their parent received their Indian Status under.  The current border restrictions could prevent a non-Status child from seeing both of their parents if their parents live in different parts of the territory, or one lives off-reserve.  The restrictions could also limit the ability of one parent to bring their child to the other parent’s home. Furthermore, there have been cases of non-Indigenous spouses not being able to attend funerals or other important (socially distanced) family gatherings as a result of this border closure.

In addition to the way this closure is impacting families, it has also cut off many Akwesasronon from home services.  People like cable technicians, appliance repairpersons, plumbers, and electricians are unable to access the homes of many people in Akwesasne as a result of this border closure.  Even where they may technically be eligible for an exemption as an essential service provider, many are unwilling to come to Akwesasne due to the intense scrutiny they face when crossing the border.  And as for those residents who are still able to cross the border, there have been reports of increased harassment by border agents who are weary of Akwesasronon’s constant border crossings and concerned about the perceived health risk this poses.

Staying Safe during the Pandemic

Akwesasronon have valid concerns about their continued ability to traverse the international border that cuts through their community. However, they also have fair reason to be concerned about the spread of the coronavirus in their community—the Canadian provinces and American state that surround Akwesasne have some of the highest infection rates in each country. In Canada, Ontario and Quebec have had the highest number of cases throughout the pandemic, with approximately 39,000 and 59,000 cases, respectively, confirmed to date.  Combined, this accounts for 85% of all cases in Canada. In the US, the state of New York was the epicentre of the pandemic towards the start, and now has the third highest number of cases confirmed, with 418,000, accounting for 10% of total cases in the country. So how is the community protecting itself from the spread of the coronavirus amid constant cross-border movement between regional hotspots?

Akwesasne has imposed its own quarantine requirements. Anyone who enters the territory from outside of the 50-mile (80-km) radius surrounding Akwesasne is required to self-isolate for 14 days.  This means that anyone coming from any of the major city hotspots near Akwesasne (Toronto, Montreal, New York City) is required to self-isolate upon entering Akwesasne, regardless of whether they crossed the border.

This approach seems to be working.  Since the start of the pandemic, there have been a total of twelve COVID-19 cases in Akwesasne.  Considering its proximity to hotspots and its unique jurisdictional challenges, this low infection rate is all the more laudable. But, if Akwesasne’s own quarantine requirements seem to be effective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, why are non-Status community members being excluded from travel exemptions?  The answer to this is probably the same as to the question of why community members are forced to go through border checkpoints every day in the first place—the Canadian and American governments have a history of interfering with and challenging Akwesasne’s sovereignty, and the actions taken during this global pandemic are no different.

Ultimately, Akwesasronon are used to dealing with border troubles.  From racist encounters with border agents, to heavy fines for delaying or failing to report entry, Akwesasronon have faced more than their fair share of border woes over the years, with a class action against the Canada Border Services Agency launched last year.

The community has adapted to having an international border run through their community, and they will adapt once again to the current border restrictions. But with no end in sight for this border closure, one has to wonder what the long-term impacts of these restrictions will be on the community.  While people around the world are wondering when life will return to normal, some Akwesasronon are left to wonder how many more months it will be until they can visit family members a mere 15-minutes away.

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