WINNIPEG – Gary McLean says that when he was seven years old and could not speak English, he was forced to attend Dog Creek Indian Day School.
His older siblings taught him how to ask to go to the bathroom in English, but he says that didn’t save him from getting the strap when he spoke his native language of Ojibwa.
During his eight years at the school, McLean says he was forced to kneel in a corner of the classroom as punishment for having spoken Ojibwa. He adds that he was also repeatedly sexually assaulted by a nun until he left the school in 1965.
But when Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology and compensation package to former students of native residential schools last year, McLean wasn’t included. That’s because he and roughly 70,000 other aboriginal children across Canada went home for the night.
The exclusion has prompted McLean and others to file a $15-billion lawsuit in Manitoba pressing for compensation from the federal government. The lawsuit, which they hope will be approved as a class action, alleges aboriginal children in day schools suffered just as much abuse as residential school survivors and the scars run just as deep.
“The only difference is they got to go home at the end of the day,” says Ray Mason, a residential school survivor who helped bring the lawsuit forward. “It only takes five to 10 minutes to abuse somebody.”
One student says he had his mouth washed out with soap every time he spoke his own language, says Mason, who is chairman of Spirit Wind Survivors. Other plaintiffs say in the statement of claim that they were abused with a strap, as well as physically and sexually abused by nuns and priests who ran the schools.
The lawsuit says the Crown should have protected aboriginal children from the alleged abuse years ago. Now, it says, the legacy “has saturated the very fabric of aboriginal peoples.”
They suffer higher suicide, incarceration and infant mortality rates because of the “federal ethnocide policy,” according to the statement of claim.
Joan Jack, the lawyer representing day school survivors, says those who went home should be treated the same as students who were kept in residence away from their families.
“Whether you went to a school where you slept at night or you went home at night is not relevant to you ending up not being able to speak your language, feeling ashamed of who you are, being abused spiritually,” she says.
“People want to be able to feel that they belong here, that this is our country. We are the indigenous people of this country and Canada is slowly waking up to that fact.”
The federal government has not yet filed a statement of defence and none of these allegations has been proven in court.
Jack says they hope Ottawa will avoid a lengthy and expensive legal battle by simply including day school students in the residential school agreement. The $15 billion the lawsuit is seeking in damages was based on the ratio sought by residential school survivors in their claim, she says.
Although the group doesn’t have a lot of money, Mason says the fight won’t stop until the federal government acknowledges the day school residents.
“The apology doesn’t mean anything to them because it doesn’t include them,” Mason says. “Until that day comes that everybody is included in getting justice and fair compensation, there will be no rest.”