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First Nations chiefs in N.B. demand 1-year extension for Indian day school claims

First Nation chiefs in New Brunswick are demanding a one-year extension for Indian day school settlement applications so survivors can get support during the process, which has been difficult during the pandemic. 

George Ginnish, chief of Natoaganeg First Nation, about 120 kilometres northwest of Moncton, said the current process is traumatizing to survivors.

“If the government of Canada was truthful and serious about reconciliation, then they would do this,” said Ginnish. 

“They would not let the clock run out.” 

Ginnish and 14 other New Brunswick chiefs issued a statement this week calling on Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller to extend the deadline for day school settlement applications to July 2023.

Indian or federal day schools were federally run institutions that attempted to rid Indigenous children of their language and culture and some children faced sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

A class action lawsuit was settled in 2019 and survivors could file claims for compensation starting in January 2020.  Compensation is on a tiered system for harms suffered, from level one to level five, ranging from $10,000 to $200,000. Survivors making claims for levels two to five need to write a statement disclosing details of the abuse they suffered.

Ginnish said writing those disclosures is traumatizing to their community members. 

“They are really re-traumatizing our elders, and if that continues, then the intergenerational trauma will, too,” said Ginnish.

A spokesperson for class counsel Gowling WLG wrote in an email to CBC News that if someone is unable to file a claim before the July 13, 2022 deadline “due to unique impacts from the pandemic, or another extraordinary circumstance” then they can apply for a six-month extension.

“That said, with a little over two months left until the deadline, we strongly encourage claimants to begin the claims process sooner rather than relying on the exceptions committee to grant a six-month extension,” the spokesperson wrote.

Class counsel offers free assistance to claimants.

On their own during pandemic

A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada referred questions about extending the deadline to class counsel.

They said in an emailed statement that Canada recognizes that revisiting past abuse can be difficult for survivors and people requiring immediate assistance can contact the Hope for Wellness helpline, and that the Non-Insured Health Benefits program for First Nations and Inuit provides coverage for mental health counselling.

They added that the settlement included $200 million toward the McLean Day Schools Settlement Corporation to support commemoration projects, health and wellness programs, truth-telling events and the restoration and preservation of Indigenous languages and culture.

Ginnish said the survivors were promised legal, technical and mental wellness support to deal with the trauma while applying but instead, many survivors found they had to file on their own because of the pandemic. Some found the process of disclosures too daunting so they settled for level one compensation. 

Ginnish is asking for a revaluation of cases where survivors applied and received compensation but filed without the proper support. He would also like to see any survivor who lost their Indigenous language automatically get $100,000 because it’s still a struggle to revitalize the language.

“They have to show us they are serious about this,” said Ginnish.

‘More damaging than beneficial’

Susan Levi-Peters, a former chief of Elsipogtog First Nation, attended the Big Cove federal school for 10 years.

She is working with day school survivors in her community, who are applying to have their files reevaluated. Levi-Peters said the application process was confusing for many. 

“The process was more damaging than beneficial,” said Levi-Peters. 

Former Elsipogtog Chief Susan Levi-Peters is an day school survivor and is working with other survivors to file for reconsideration of their compensation. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Survivors need more time to write their disclosures, she said, adding she’s seen people who had to take breaks to get through it. 

She also said having access to legal counsel was helpful, and she brought in a lawyer to help people applying for reconsideration. She said it helped ease the stress survivors were feeling. 

 “I think every community needs to go back and review their community members’ applications,” said Levi-Peters. 

She would like to see an indefinite extension. Some abuses were normalized among survivors, she said, and only once survivors heard what happened to them was wrong, they understood it as abuse.

Levi-Peters hopes Indigenous communities are given time to heal. 

“It didn’t happen overnight, and it wont be fixed overnight,” she said. 

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