March 31 marks the conclusion of the largest class action settlement in Canada’s history. After 14 years, the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) — a compensation process established to resolve claims of serious physical, sexual or emotional abuse suffered at Indian residential schools — is officially over.
Despite the fact that it collected claims from more than 38,000 Indian residential school survivors, the IAP remains relatively unknown.
The court-ordered destruction of IAP testimonies and records, the biased and superficial mainstream news media reports and the continued emphasis on compensation and costs ensure that if it is remembered, it will be through a colonial gaze.
This gaze represents the perspective through which the process is framed, what is explicitly valued or absent, and whose story is remembered: the colonial narrative is privileged and the Indigenous voice limited.
Our national study seeks to understand perspectives and the framing of the IAP to create public knowledge, in the wake of the destruction of records. The study analyzes government documents (Hansard Index, the traditional name of the transcripts of Parliamentary debates), national and Indigenous media, along with transcripts produced through interviews and focus groups with survivors, health support workers, adjudicators, judges and lawyers. The results presented here are preliminary.
A bit of background
Of the 38,000 survivors who applied to the IAP, almost 27,000 attended adjudications — an out-of-court process. The adjudication gave survivors the opportunity to tell their story of abuse to an adjudicator and government representative, with optional supports including a lawyer, health support worker, elder, translator or family. The fate of the records and testimonies from these hearings — 800,000 documents — was decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2017.
The court upheld the position of the Indian Residential School Adjudication Secretariat, the body responsible for administering the IAP, that the testimonies would be destroyed unless individual survivors decided to claim or share their records. Currently only a handful of survivors have requested their transcripts or offered to make (sometimes redacted) versions publicly accessible through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). In 2027, any remaining survivor testimonies and records will be destroyed.
In January 2020 an Ontario Superior Court ruling blocked the creation of static reports. These included information the secretariat gathered during the IAP about variables like the child’s age and sex, particularities of residential schools, types of abuses and community impacts. The case was appealed by the NCTR and the Ontario Court of Appeal’s judgment is pending.
Coverage of the IAP: Colonial and wanting
Media coverage of the IAP is sparse. Preliminary results of our study reveal a focus on the trials and tribulations of a bureaucratic process that attempted to combine class action law with reconciliation-based gestures. Lost in this narrative is the survivors’ lived experiences within the IAP and a critical evaluation of the IAP’s overarching goals: healing and reconciliation.
Through our study, “Reconciling Perspectives and Building Public Memory: Learning from the Independent Assessment Process,” we established factors that played key roles in healing: giving testimony, and supporting, believing and validating the survivors. This perspective was largely forgotten by the media and instead reports often focused on the credibility of survivors’ claims of abuse, financial compensations and court cases. It was, however, acknowledged in the IAP’s final report.
The dominant narrative conflated success of the IAP with compensation. For example, the secretariat reported success when the claimant garnered a cash settlement (89 per cent success rate with an average of $91,000 in compensation). And although compensation metrics are certainly one indicator of success, the experiences of survivors telling their stories are key to considering the IAP’s larger goals.
The defensive posture of the federal government recently surfaced. An independent review of claims (specifically those from St. Anne’s Indian Residential School) was recently announced following critiques by survivors and public officials like former senator Murray Sinclair and MP Charlie Angus.
Elected officials in the House of Commons had an opportunity to contribute to public memory based on meaningful reconciliation, but it was largely swept away in partisan politics. Looking at Hansard Index debates from 2004-19, we found the IAP was discussed only 28 times.
The significance of Indian residential school abuses, the damage the system did to families and communities, the litigation and compensation settlements that came after the IAP can only be fully comprehended within Canada’s long history of denial of Indigenous human and gender rights.
The move from explicit systems of violence to concealed structures of domination cannot be mistaken for reconciliation. We must examine the ways in which Indigenous rights are both explicitly and implicitly advanced or denied: this was highlighted in an earlier IAP study that found that although residential schools taught girls domestic tasks, unpaid work caring for children was not acknowledged or compensated in the IAP model.
Remembering for a common future
We fear additional tragedies are inevitable without abundant data regarding abuse factors, or intergenerational and community impacts. These data add a quantifiable dimension to the horrors of residential schools and remind us of the consequences of racist public policy. Such policy is not just about the individuals impacted; it affects the consciousness of collectives and communities.
Public records are valuable for understanding how public memory is created, and who is directing its narrative. Unless attention is paid to the ways in which the media and Canada continue to decentre Indigenous voices and experiences the colonial gaze will endure.
How residential schools and the IAP are remembered is not only relevant to Canada’s identity but for government-Indigenous and public-Indigenous relations, now and into the future.