Dene Nation National Chief Norman Yakeleya still remembers the tears rolling down his mother’s face as a plane would arrive in his hometown of Tulita in September to whisk children off to residential school in Inuvik.
Yakeleya has not been shy to express the harmful legacy and impacts that residential schools and Indian day schools have had on survivors throughout the Northwest Territories.
He said recently that surviving students should be remembered for their resiliency as they have overcome the federal government’s attempts at dehumanization, assimilation and genocide against Indigenous nations.
As a former attendee of Grollier Hall, Yakeleya also serves as a regional chief of residential schools for the Assembly of First Nations. In that role, he has been working with colleagues to monitor the federal Indian day school claimant process. ow nine months into a two-and-a-half year process, he’s pushing for a review.
Last January, Yakeleya announced the start of the process, estimating at the time that there could be 10,000 to 15,000 former day school students in the NWT alone.
Yakeleya said this week that he has been among those who have leaned toward having a day of recognition for residential school survivors in June, rather than September, because June was when children had more positive feelings as they were able to return to their home communities.
“In September it means you are not feeling good or thinking good because as young students it was when you were being taken away from families and (the) way of life, and being separated and taken to a different society or culture,” he said.
However, a day of recognition in June would still reflect tremendous hurt to students who attended residential and day schools, and some survivors are still haunted by memories, said Yakeleya.
“The memory still lives within the former students and families,” he said. “So even though it is not happening today, the memories are alive and well.”
An eventual federal statutory holiday marking the day would at least bring some attention to the suffering that former students have suffered, he said. The federal government introduced a bill this week to establish a statutory holiday on Sept. 30 in response to one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. It’s something Yakeleya said he supports during a news conference on Wednesday.
“I think it would give light to the significance of the Indian residential schools in Canada and it would shed a light on the dark chapter (of) the Canadian government, the churches and any other agencies,” he said. “It may be insignificant to some former students and some communities, however, if we are going to recognize this statutory holiday then there needs to be actions and policies and maybe stronger emphasis on the truth and reconciliation, the Royal Commission and the commitment from Canada to dig its hands in the past.”
Indian Day School settlements
One of the big actions that Yakeleya is calling for is more supports for seniors or Elders in small communities who are filling out day school settlement claims.
The Toronto-based law firm Gowling WLG has been assisting applicants with the Indian Day School Settlement Process, whereby former students could be eligible for compensation of $10,000-$200,000.
In Canada, there were more than 700 such schools, with the first one opening in 1863 in Ontario and the last one closing in 2000. There were about 28 to 30 of the schools in the NWT.
Anyone who attended federal Indian day schools is eligible for compensation from the federal government. Day school survivors weren’t covered by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2006.
Applicants have until July 2022 to apply for compensation. The processing of claims began on May 12.
More than 78,000 claims have been filed from across the country to date, Yakeleya said, but the government has only issued 23,000 cheques.
“It has been estimated that 30 per cent of some claims have had a deficiency in some manner,” Yakeleya said, adding that this can be for a number of reasons, including that English is often a second language to people applying.
Sometimes small pieces of information have not been provided in the settlement claim process, such as signatures or proper signatures. It can take four to six weeks to process a claim, but with deficiencies it can take up to three months.
-with notes from Blair McBride