Ray Mason was there in the earliest days of the fight to hold Canada and the churches accountable for the abuses of the residential school system.
The former leader of survivor group Spirit Wind Manitoba and former president of the National Indian Residential School Survivor Society attended the Birtle Residential School in Portage la Prairie, Man., and the Mackay Residential School in Dauphin, Man., for almost 12 years.
As groups of residential school survivors started to get organized in many corners of the country in the mid-1980s, Mason and a small group of former classmates came to occupy a central role in the movement in Manitoba.
See a complete list of stories in the APTN Investigates series on the IRSSA: Truth? Or Reconciliation?
As things got moving, Mason was also in touch with survivors involved with the various class-action lawsuits across the country that were brought against Canada and the churches.
“When we first started, we knew there was a group of people here, a group of people there, some people. And I said, OK, why don’t we unite as one? And let’s do this under one roof,” he said.
Mason called APTN Investigates last year to remind us of the various tactics used by the government and the churches as they tried to contain the movement of survivors demanding justice. He said it’s easy to forget just how hard and how cutthroat the fight was in the days before the settlement agreement.
“When I came out of the residential school, I came out of there frustrated. I came out of there confused, angry at the world,” he recalled. “We used to meet and we used to reminisce and talk about our time in the schools and all that we went through. And then one day, I just mentioned, I said, well, don’t you think that’s wrong? Because if I stayed with my mom, I think things would have been a lot better. And that’s where it all started.”
As they looked back at their time at the schools, Mason came to a decision.
“At that point I thought, well, I’m going to sue Canada. And then it hit home, and I began to realize, wow, if I’m suing our government, I better get more people to help me and support me,” he said.
The idea caught on with survivors. Mason said his group was involved in settlement talks with the government and found themselves competing with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). The government was prepared to settle out of court to avoid dealing with the handful of class-action lawsuits. They were prepared to make a common experience payment to all who attended a residential school plus provide additional compensation to those who experienced sexual and serious physical abuse.
The discussion was about how much to compensate for the first year in school and how much for each additional year. Mason says the AFN settled for less than his group was seeking, agreeing to $10,000 for the first year and $3,000 for each additional year.
“And we were negotiating, and we were talking, $25,000 and $10,000. I asked Phil Fontaine, our national chief of the day, how did he come up with his formula,” Mason said.
He said Fontaine told him they followed the model established when Japanese Canadians interned by the government during the Second World War were compensated by the Brian Mulroney government in 1988.
We asked the former three-term national chief to comment on this but he declined to be interviewed. In previous interviews, Fontaine has said repeatedly that it was a negotiation and his negotiators did the best they could, adding that the advanced age of survivors put pressure on the AFN to not get involved in a long, drawn out process. And the threat of breaking off negotiations and going to court could have meant that survivors received nothing.
Despite that, many survivors still second-guess the AFN and Fontaine.
The question of how the AFN became involved in negotiations in the first place is another item of contention for many survivors.
“Well, that’s the area that we made a slip-up. We lost control. And that should have never happened. Because what you know of what we’ve done as a grassroots organization, all the hard work, all the highs and lows of that, and the disappointments. It was very traumatic even to lobby and fight for that, because Canada was so dead-set against us,” Mason said.
He also had problems with how the settlement agreement was administered by the government.
“Some people got nothing. And then some people got maybe $10,000,” he said.
And despite Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler’s strong admonition to the Crown – when he ratified the settlement agreement – to be aware of its unique position as both defendant and administrator and, that “there must be an express recognition by the defendant proposed as administrator, that the settlement is being implemented and administered in a court-supervised process, and not subject to the direction of the defendant either directly or indirectly” many survivors told APTN Investigates they believe they saw the heavy hand of the Crown in many facets of the day-to-day operations of the settlement agreement’s administration.
The bureaucratic and complex legalistic processes in the agreement were not ideal for most survivors, Mason and others say.
“When you make an appeal, the other bad thing about it was that you could not speak to your appeal. Because the whole process that went on when somebody had made an appeal, all it did was, they took the transcript and everything of your hearing, and gave it to another adjudicator in the same house. Now, is that adjudicator going to show up their colleague, and say, oh, you made a terrible mistake, I think you should give this person a large amount of money?”
Survivors were often forced to prove they attended a school, even though the government was supposed to keep records and monitors status Indians from cradle to grave.
“I always said that we should never have to prove that we were put in those institutions. But yet to turn around and ask us, oh, what did the guy look like, what did the perpetrator look like? Or, do you remember the colour of that building, what’s the name of the place that you’re…They expected us to know something about records. And we had never had the records to start off with. We never knew about records. I guess, what you would call it, a travesty of justice?” he said.
The government disqualified many schools based on technicalities.
“It doesn’t matter where you stuck us. You are responsible,” he said. “I tried to talk to the lawyers to bring that up, because Canada is also lucky they never got charged for child abduction on top of this whole fiasco.”
The government and the churches tried every legal tactic possible to derail the pending class-action lawsuits, he said.
“They tried to hit us with a statute of limitations. And that would have virtually wiped us all out.”
“And then they tried to hit us with the taxation issue,” he added, saying that taxing residential schools compensation would be essentially clawing it all back.
“They make you go through the hoops. And another sad thing about it, and they know us Native people, we are a poor people. So they create more hardship, put them through the court system. It’s costly. Time consuming,” he said. “They hope that we’ll all die off and give up. And I thank God for the lawyers that do stand up and believe in us, and are willing to work on a contingency basis for us to help us get justice. Otherwise, like the government’s attitude, they’re poor, they don’t have no money. They would never have enough money to fight us in the courts.”
Mason is writing a book about his experiences.
“It’s called Spirit of the Grassroots People. And I’m just a messenger,” he said. “I’m a first-time author. And I’m writing about all my personal activities that I feel that I contributed and helped bring about the Indian Residential School [Settlement] Agreement. Now, the way the agreement turned out is not the way I wanted it to. But it’ll show in my book why I say that.”
Writing has not been easy but he wants people to remember the survivors he worked with and pay tribute to all those who helped survivors, including those he disagreed with from time to time.
“It has to come out. It’s like digging up old bones, really. When you dig up old bones, all the hurt comes out, and memories come out. But then again, it helps me get stronger in a way too. Can you imagine my book, when I wrote my book it took me four months to get through the first two chapters, I’d go in there, type, come out of there bawling like a baby. Because I just couldn’t type,” he said. “I talk about all the little things that people don’t think it was important, that was important. And I hope that someday, my little committee and my people, will get justice as well. And I speak from the heart when I talk. I’m not out to get revenge. I’m not out to defame anybody, or hurt anybody. In fact, I still acknowledge the great AFN grand chief that consummated everything. I have to give credit where it’s due.”