Note: This article may be triggering. For immediate emotional support, the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available toll-free at 1-866-925-4419.
SASKATOON - Young Indigenous children walked from the sacred fire to the opening ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's fourth National Event currently going on in Saskatoon. They carried banners, each with the name of a residential school that operated in Saskatchewan, including Île-à-la-Crosse.
But thousands of predominantly Métis children who attended Île-à-la-Crosse and other residential schools have not been recognized by the federal government.
The Catholic-run Île-à-la-Crosse Mission School, a boarding school that operated in northwestern Saskatchewan from 1884 to 1976, was excluded from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the national apology, and federal recognition of responsibility.
Métis Nation president Clément Chartier was a student at Île-à-la-Crosse for ten years.
"The truth is that the exclusion of the Métis Nation, of the Métis People, is reflected throughout this whole period," said Chartier at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) national event yesterday. "We need to ensure that everyone is aware of that."
Chartier was seated onstage alongside representatives of Indian Residential School survivors, churches and the federal government - all parties to the Settlement Agreement. When it was his turn to speak, Chartier was quick to point out that the Métis Nation and Métis residential school survivors are not in fact party to the Agreement.
As representative of the Métis National Council, Chartier was also invited to Ottawa and witnessed the PM's public apology in June 2008. There too he stood alongside First Nations and Inuit representatives, as he listened to the statement that excluded the vast majority of Métis residential school survivors.
In 2006, Harper ran an election campaign radio ad promising full compensation to all residential school survivors, including Île-à-la-Crosse. In January 2007, then Minister for Indian Affairs Jim Prentice said in a CBC interview that the commitment would not be fulfilled. The radio ad was based on an incorrect assumption about federal funding of the school, he said, disqualifying it from the Agreement or compensation.
The school was not included in the June 11, 2008 apology to former students. The following day, Harper was pressed by Liberal Party MLA and then-Leader of the Opposition Stéphane Dion about his campaign promise and the exclusion of Île-à-la-Crosse.
According to the official report of the June 12, 2008 House of Commons Debates, Harper responded that "there was a federal residential school in Île-à-la-Crosse, but in fact there are no living survivors of that school today. There was later a provincial residential school. As I indicated, we understand that remains an unresolved issue."
Many Métis residential school survivors, their families and federations have participated in TRC events and given statements despite their exclusion from the Settlement Agreement.
"It also follows that we're excluded from the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that flows from the Agreement," said Chartier. "I know that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is doing its utmost to include everyone."
Although the TRC was established through the Agreement reached in 2007 as a result of the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history, the TRC does not exclude anyone from making a statement based on federal recognition. Countless intergenerational survivors, day school survivors, Métis residential school survivors and others have given statements about their experiences with the residential school system and its ongoing impacts.
But the Métis National Council, provincial Métis federations and survivors continue to fight for recognition and accountability.
"Reconciliation should be for all Aboriginal Peoples, and not just for some people," said Chartier. "It can't be just the Métis Nation speaking to itself."
"Neither [federal nor provincial] government will come to the table. Neither unfortunately does the Catholic Church, the diocese. No one does," said Chartier.
Chartier told the TRC and the public attending the national event that at one point the Canadian government and the government of Alberta were going back and forth on funding issues related to the operation of residential schools in the province. At one point, said Chartier, a representative from the federal government said "they're nobody's children."
'Nobody's children' also includes the First Nations children who attended the excluded schools along with mainly Métis classmates and other students of mixed ancestry. While Métis children attending any of the 134 Indian Residential Schools identified under the Settlement Agreement are recognized and eligible for compensation, the reverse is not true.
Robert Derocher is from the Flying Dust First Nation, located just north of Meadow Lake. An only child of mixed ancestry, his mother, who spent 8 years in residential school, died when he was a young boy and his father commited suicide. He was raised by his grandparents until the age of 11, when he was sent to Île-à-la-Crosse, in 1961.
"It has not been recognized as one of the institutions. But all the things that did happen at residential schools are identical to what happened in the convent. It's just that we were not Treaty Indians," Derocher told the Vancouver Media Co-op, as hundreds of grade 7 and 8 students filed past on their way to TRC education day sessions on Friday.
"There was a lot of physical, emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual and mental abuse. And I went through all of it," said Derocher. "There was a supervisor that used to take care of us and he was a pedophile. And he would take two, three, four, five, six of us into his room and we'd have to perform sexual acts."
"I know of two of the guys that I was in there with, as little kids - two of them have committed suicide," he told the Vancouver Media Co-op. "They were my friends. I used to play with them."
"At about 21, 22 years old, I found out that both of them had hung themselves," he said.
"For some reason I'm one of the survivors. And I'm grateful for that," said Derocher. "I didn't deal with my issues 'til 1993. I've been dealing with them since then and it's been getting easier and easier," said Derocher.
Although Île-à-la-Crosse is not included in the Settlement Agreement, Derocher decided to come to Saskatoon and give a statement about his experiences to the TRC, both to add to the historical record for educational purposes and to contribute to the fight for the inclusion of the school.
"Because it hasn't been accepted yet, I thought I'd make a statement and tell [the TRC] my story. And hopefully it would encourage them to open that file because tragic things did happen," he said.
"I had fear and I felt good that I was gonna give my statement," Derocher told the Vancouver Media Co-op. "They said they're going to use it to educate other people about it and to tell the people about it that are considering re-opening it."
But Derocher has received little news about the case of Île-à-la-Crosse.
"I keep hearing that it's still in the dock. It's still in the dock. And that's all I ever hear," he said.
Sitting in the sun after having given his statement to the TRC, Derocher was glad to have come to the national event.
"I didn't deal with my issues 'til 1993," he said. "And I'm still dealing with it and it's not easy. It gets easier though, the more I let go, the more I let it out."
With the September 19, 2012 deadline for Independent Assessment Process applications for compensation due to severe or sexual abuse fast-approaching and the common experience payment deadline already over, the inclusion of Île-à-la-Crosse in the Settlement Agreement is doubtful.
But for now, many Métis residential school survivors like Derocher may find some healing in giving statements and knowing that their testimonies will become part of a national historical memory, while their struggle for recognition and justice continues.
Sandra Cuffe is a Vancouver-based journalist.
This article is the third in a series funded and published by the Vancouver Media Co-op about the TRC and the residential school system and legacy. Stay tuned for more reporting on the national event in Saskatoon and from the west coast. The first two articles in the series are:
A Sad Chapter in Our History? Four years after Harper's apology, residential school legacy continues (June 11)
Residential School Survivors Gather in Saskatoon: Former Students Walk to First Day of TRC National Event (June 21)