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Americas Thursday, 28 December, 2000, 18:35 GMT
Abuse in Canada
Rosie Goldsmith (right) with Freddy Pratt, land manager of the Gordon Reserve in Canada's far north
By Rosie Goldsmith

I reached the Gordon Reserve after a long, dangerous drive across the snow-covered prairies. It was minus thirty-five degrees. I was scraping off the ice from inside and outside of the car.

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Gordon is in Saskatchewan, a province normally only associated with farming, flat, bare landscapes and wilderness. But I was here because Saskatchewan has become the centre of a bitter divide in Canada - over the abuse of indigenous people. And Gordon Reserve is the focus. About twelve hundred, mostly Cree, Indians live here and although it looks beautiful in the snow it's a sad place: unemployment is about eighty per cent; there's high alcoholism and there are countless tales of abuse.

Freddy Pratt, the land manager of the Gordon tribe met me and showed me around. We stood in the snow and he pointed to an empty space: "A couple of years ago the school here was levelled. People thought a lot of the pain would go away that way."

When Gordon School was closed by the government, it was the last residential school for indigenous children in Canada. It was in the schools that the abuse - by the clerics and lay people who ran them - took place. Indian children had been removed from their families and traditional lifestyles to be boarded in these special schools since the nineteenth century.

Professor Jim Miller says there's a long history of neglect and abuse in the church-run schools
Professor Jim Miller at the University of Saskatchewan filled me in on the historical background. He is an expert on residential schools and the First Nations - the official term for the native peoples of Canada. "The main impetus (for the schools) came from the Christian missionaries who saw it as part of their evangelical mission... it was also seen that assimilation and conversion to Christianity was a form of adaptation to Euro-Canadian ways ... and even as schools they failed, they didn't give people the skills they needed."

The schools were also riddled with abuse - sexual, physical and emotional. And the children, now adults, some already deceased, are finally coming out with their stories after decades of silence and pain.

Benny Pratt: three generations of his family were abused
Benny Pratt is Freddy's brother. He can see the site of Gordon school from his front window. He attended the school from the ages of five to fourteen. He's now forty-three and only recently has he been able to overcome the shame and guilt he felt at the sexual abuse he underwent through all those years. His father broke down when Benny told him the story and admitted that he too had been abused. Then Benny's own son told him the same had happened to him. Three generations of abuse in one family and at the same school.

In 1990 a First Nations Grand Chief, Phil Fontaine, was the first to speak publicly about the abuse he had suffered. This encouraged thousands more to do the same. And then the lawsuits against the government and the Christian churches started. There are already six-and-a-half-thousand and the number is expected to double. A whole new legal industry has shot up as a result. This is a tense and expensive time for Canada.

Lawyer Tony Merchant has been pursuing the cases aggressively
Tony Merchant, a very successful Saskatchewan lawyer, is representing the claimants in two-thirds of those cases. He has been severely criticised for his overzealous recruitment of clients but when I put this charge to him he replied: "For the First Nations people they had no idea that they had the right of litigation so lawyers (like me) have been telling them they have - I believe it's to their benefit."

Benny Pratt, along with a couple of hundred other claimants from Gordon, has settled out of court. The administrator of the school, William Starr, has already been found guilty and was imprisoned.

Plaintiff Faron Nippi: the lawsuits themselves can be distressing
But Faron Nippi, another Gordon school graduate I spoke with, is pursuing an individual litigation. He is twenty-seven and one of twelve children, who were all abused. Faron is haunted by what happened and obsessed by his lawsuit which has been going on over four years. His experience has not given him much faith in lawyers: "Who wants to run the show?" he asked me, "The victims or the lawyers? The lawyers of course! They want to profit from people's pain and suffering".

So what about the churches and the federal government? All fingers seem to be pointing in their direction. The federal government which funded and built the schools has admitted that it is ultimately responsible; it has also officially apologised to the First Nations people. It has donated 350 million Canadian dollars to set up a foundation, run by indigenous people themselves, to address the legacy of the schools.

The Dean and some parishioners of St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Regina
But a number of church dioceses are so strapped trying to settle lawsuits and paying lawyers that they are threatened with bankruptcy. I visited one church, St Paul's Anglican Cathedral in Regina. A group of parishioners voiced their concern: "Churches just don't go bankrupt!" one woman told me," That happens to businesses!" "We have to share the blame and should try to help heal", one man said and the Dean told me, "We are white, middle-class people and this makes us conscious of the people around us."

And this is indeed what has begun to happen in Canada: a debate has started, and now the talk is of healing.

Jim Miller Saskatchewan U sociologist
explains the origins of the residential schools - and why they went wrong
Grant Severight, Canadian Indian, Nov 00
describes how the schools fostered abuse
Benny Pratt, Gordon Reserve, Canada, Dec 00
on the claims and counter-claims surrounding the schools
Native Canadian round dance, Saskatoon, Dec 00
part of a project helping prisoners at Saskatchewan Penitentiary rediscover their roots
See also:

20 Jun 00 | Americas
18 Jun 00 | Americas
15 Sep 99 | Americas
28 Oct 98 | Americas
07 Jan 98 | Despatches
08 Jan 98 | Americas
Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.

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