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Non-cash education credit triggers outcry from residential school survivors

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VANCOUVER - Carla Robinson's mother was sexually abused as a child attending two Indian residential schools in British Columbia, but her father dodged that system and encouraged both his daughter and her children to pursue higher education.

The decades-old torment for her mother, however, has resurfaced to produce fresh anger and suspicion after the Robinson family learned a $3,000 education credit offered as part of the residential schools settlement may not be used as tuition for her 12-year-old granddaughter's private arts school.

Many more survivors also fear they won't be able to access the money.

Robinson's case is one among hundreds of wide-ranging complaints expressed by First Nations families across Canada since a January announcement that remaining compensation from the $1.9 billion settlement fund would be dispersed for educational purposes. A dedicated information line, set up to help survivors making their claim, has also received more than 9,300 calls to date.

The notion that reconciliation could be fostered through education, when that was the source of so much trauma for her mother, further appals Robinson, who lives on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ont.

"It's like in The (novel) Hunger Games, where you're like 'Haha, you win the opportunity because you're a survivor to go fight the other survivors from previous Hunger Games.'"

Just under $300 million remained after compensation cheques were sent to almost 80,000 former students aimed at resolving claims of abuse at more than 130 Canadian residential schools. Those students, many now elderly, are eligible for non-cash personal education credits that can be used or transferred to a spouse, sibling, child or grandchild.

But the plan has raised the ire of many survivors, who've flooded an aboriginal advocacy group with upset telephone calls and condemned the dispersal at community gatherings and in online postings.

Much of the outcry has been fielded by the Residential Indian School Survivors Society in North Vancouver, which has taken about a dozen emotional calls daily since the New Year.

"We've had a lot of complaints because people have said, 'Well, I don't have grandchildren and my kids aren't interested in going to school, so why can't we just get the money?'" said Maxine Windsor, with the society.

"There's all kinds of feedback, and it's people just getting triggered (emotionally) one way or the other, due to the abuse at the schools."

Survivors are struggling through the multi-page application due to low literacy levels, are frustrated by a tight Oct. 31 deadline, and have suspicions of two trust funds where any remaining cash will be funnelled, Windsor said.

She also said some people claim they were short-changed in the initial compensation, and then there are the concerns about the potential emotional toll of urging people to seek education when its institutions were the bedrock of trauma.

Even when survivors want to direct their credit to a school, some have found their institutions aren't eligible.

Robinson made that discovery when she attempted to transfer the credit from her 69-year-old mother, Winnie, who now lives in Kitimat, B.C., to her daughter Leenah. There's an appeal process, but Robinson notes that means more paperwork without any guarantees.

The credit was conceived as part of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement negotiated by the federal government, Assembly of First Nations and Inuit representatives.

More than $1.6 billion was distributed from the main settlement, leaving survivors up to $3,000 each to be sent directly to educational institutions. The B.C. Supreme Court approved the terms in October 2013, and application packages were mailed to survivors in January.

"The important message is that's a clause that everybody agreed on, it was determined a long time ago," said Valerie Hache, spokeswoman for the federal Aboriginal Affairs Ministry.

Hache said she has heard indirect word of unhappiness and confusion.

"I just don't quite understand where it's coming from. I just think it's too bad," she said. "I've heard something similar like people saying they didn't really know how that whole thing was working. I thought it was pretty clear."

Assembly of First Nations CEO Peter Dinsdale said the organization received mixed feedback, with positive responses including a fund-pooling proposal by the Gwich'in Tribal Council in the Nothwest Territories town of Inuvik for a culture camp.

But people have also been requesting the money be made available more broadly and over a longer time period, he said.

"We're sympathetic to all those things, I think they're very real challenges. We want to be sure survivors can use this to their maximum benefit," he said. "But for our purposes where we are today, this is a part of the settlement agreement — we're trying to implement it to the fullest range possible with the most options possible."

Unclaimed funds will be transferred in early 2015 to the National Indian Brotherhood Trust Fund and Inuvialuit Education Foundation, for educational purposes that have not been specified. Their executive boards will determine how it will be spent, Dinsdale said.

Survivors may also pool credits for group learning activities, although the society's executive director, Cindy Tom-Lindley, said they've heard no favourable response to the option while they had numerous requests for assistance workshops.

Eight liaison officers have been hired between the AFN and Inuit organizers to help the credit administrator, Crawford Class Action Services. Almost 2,000 credit claims have been received so far.


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