Despite being exposed to the worst horrors of the Indian residential schools, Garnet Angeconeb refuses to give in to bitterness or anger.
Born on the Lac Seul First Nation near Sioux Lookout, Ont., he was taken from his family to the nearby Pelican Indian Residential School when he was six years old.
He stayed there from 1963 to 1969.
During that time, Angeconeb and 18 other boys were sexually abused by a dorm supervisor. His abuser was eventually convicted in 1996 and sentenced to four years in prison.
While Angeconeb battled through his “lost years” afterwards, dealing with alcohol problems and living through the criminal trial of his abuser, he managed to graduate from high school and then earn a journalism degree at the University of Western Ontario.
In 1985, he was elected to the Sioux Lookout municipal council, where he helped found the Sioux Lookout Anti-racism Committee, which brings Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together to come to grips with the residential schools legacy. He was also a member of the board of directors of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
“I get a lot of phone calls. People stop me on the street – survivors – because they know I’ve been involved in the residential school issue for a long time,” he said. “I’m the go-to guy around here.”
Click here for clips of Garnet talking about survivors and the settlement agreement and APTN’s special coverage of the: IRSSA
When somebody with those qualities and experiences says there’s a problem, it would seem to make sense to pay attention. But it’s been a year since he raised the alarm about the difficulties survivors have been having with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA).
Last spring, he sent an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett calling for an independent review of the administration of the IRSSA.
“I got a letter from an assistant in Carolyn Bennett’s office,” he said. “It said, ‘Thank you for your letter. We do from time to time review aspects of the agreement and there’s no need for an overall comprehensive review of the settlement agreement. Thank you for writing.’”
But survivors have run into all sorts of complications as the settlement agreement has unfolded. Whether they were let down by an unscrupulous lawyer or targeted by predatory business people or ignored by an inflexible bureaucracy, a significant number have received inadequate compensation – or been left out entirely.
“Survivors have fallen through the cracks in that agreement. Now the settlement agreement is coming to an end, we need to know was it good for survivors?” he said. “So we need to somehow measure the successes and the failures of the settlement agreement.”
Angeconeb says many survivors, who were poorly educated and traumatized in residential school, were not equipped to deal with the technicalities of the settlement agreement, especially the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) that was created to compensate victims of sexual or severe physical abuse.
He was approached by one man whose IAP application had been denied. The man had a letter informing him of the denial and informing him he had 30 days to appeal. It was well past the deadline.
“He said to me, ‘You mean I missed the boat?’ And I said, yeah you did, sadly and unfortunately, yeah, you did. He looked at me really seriously and he said, ‘You know how difficult it was to open up old wounds and tell my story . . . for nothing?’”
He believes there should have been stronger supports in place for survivors.
“You know there are other horrible stories. About a year after the deadline for IAP, I had a survivor come to me and say ‘Garnet, I finally have enough strength to go for the compensation package.’ And I said, ‘Sorry, you missed the deadline for the IAP. It’s over,’” he said. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘Really? You mean I can’t tell my story and go for compensation?’”
Angeconeb tried to help. He called the IAP Secretariat.
“And I was told you can’t talk on behalf of him because you’re not a lawyer and you’re not representing him and so until we hear from his lawyer we can’t talk about the file,” he said. “So I went back to him and he said, ‘Never mind. I’m not going to pursue it. If I missed it, I missed the deadline and that’s it.’”
It’s not right that people who were damaged by the system should be excluded from compensation because of that damage, Angeconeb said.
“I’m talking about survivors who are illiterate, that can’t read and write, who don’t understand the process. They’re silenced. They’re the weakened voice and who really truly represents them?” he asked. “We have survivors at the table in Ottawa negotiating these deals and agreements and what have you. And I like the work they do. But at the same time I have to question: Are survivors at the ground level being really represented? And my guess is no. Because why else would it be that survivors who either aren’t ready or have fallen through the cracks really have no place to go to appeal the decisions?”
He said it’s not too late to address this gap in the agreement.
“One of the things I would like to see – it`s not over yet – is a safety net. I think you need some kind of a safety net to make sure those who may have fallen through the cracks have something, before the book is closed, that they have one more kick at the can,” he said.
The IAP was intended to be less adversarial, to be a process for verifying the legitimacy of claims without the stress of a trial.
“Survivors felt that this system – the IAP process – was not any less confrontational, as it was meant to be. Some of them walked out of those hearings more wounded than they went in and thinking I’ll go tell my story, they’ll process my claim, get my cheque. But it was pretty rough for many survivors going through the validation process, being cross-examined, if you will. And so I’ve heard from many people that it was just as adversarial as going to the regular court.”
(Garnet attended the Sioux Lookout Residential School – also known as the Pelican Residential School)
He says many non-Aboriginal Canadians don’t want to believe the reality of the residential schools and that also led to problems with the administration of the settlement agreement.
“One of the things that I’ve had to deal with as a survivor is, people saying, that couldn’t have happened. Look at you, you’re okay. You have a good job. You did okay. And I have to sadly correct them. No, I’m not okay,” he said.
If there isn’t an independent review of the settlement agreement, mistakes could be repeated, Angeconeb said.
“We need to evaluate the settlement agreement because there are going to be other processes on the horizon that may have compensation. The day schools. Already we’re dealing with the 60s scoop. And who knows where the inquiry of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, where all that’s going to go?” he asked.
To wrap up the settlement agreement, accept that people were left out and just turn the page is not an indication that Canada and the churches have accepted the full blame for the residential schools, he said.
“The statement of apology had some very powerful words. I have yet to see a lot of those words translated into action. And there was one part where the apology says something to the effect, we are now joining you on your healing train. I have to see that happen. So I think we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
See Garnet’s website here: Garnet’s Journey
Looking for APTN’s stories on the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement? Click here: IRSSA in the Archives