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A fighter then, a fighter now

Long-suffering advocate for compensation has vivid memories of his hell in residential school system

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PEGUIS FIRST NATION -- Ray Mason was one of the first aboriginal people to campaign for compensation for former residential school students back in the 1980s.

When Mason got paid $140,000 last year from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, it was the end of a journey.

At the age of six, Mason was transported from Peguis First Nation all the way to a residential school in Birtle, north of Virden. "I didn't know where I was," he said.

He ran away and was captured three times. After one capture, he was stripped and his hands tied to the top bunk in the dormitory. The angry supervisor strapped him so hard that Mason was bleeding and twice blacked out. The supervisor's wife intervened, afraid he might kill the child.

"I still have marks from that," Mason said.

He was once strapped for crossing the chapel aisle to where the girls sat. He'd spotted his sister there, whom he hadn't seen since he left home. "I'd been in the school almost a year and I didn't even know she was there."

His first encounter with sexual abuse occurred when he was eight or nine.

"We were cleaning the kitchen area and we were the last ones to leave," he recalled. An adult supervisor said he wanted to show Mason something and led him by the hand to another room. That's when the abuse occurred.

He was transferred to the residential school in Portage la Prairie in Grade 3. He was already a problem child for authorities. "I never co-operated. I fought like a renegade," he said.

He says he endured sexual abuse from a ward supervisor there but also from the older boys in the dormitory. Supervisors allowed some dormitories to turn into Lord of the Flies-type hierarchies. "Older native kids would have anal sex with us," he said.

"It was rampant," he said. "They threatened you, saying if you told anyone, you'd never see your parents again, you'd never go home, you'd never get out alive."

One of his punishments for running away from Portage was to scrub the school's concrete stairs with a tooth brush.

He never knew his father, who died when Mason was two. His mother died when he was in Grade 6. The principal accompanied him to the funeral in Peguis so he couldn't run away.

But the previous summer, during the time residential students got to go home, his mother, already very sick, had a heart-to-heart talk with him. "She said I was a smart child and that I should be the best at whatever I did."

He was transferred to MacKay Residential School in Dauphin starting in Grade 7. It was on a walk one day in Grade 7 that Mason reflected on his mother's words. "I was walking on the street and I said, 'Lord, I'm going to do it.' I made a personal promise to be the best at whatever I did."

He went from failing student to most improved student with the second-highest marks in his grade. He became a good athlete. There was bullying but the sexual abuse stopped for him. He was a good-looking young man and would slip out and date white girls. He would try to rub the colour from his skin.

After he finished Grade 12, he went to work in the nickel mines in Thompson for two years. He had no parents to turn to. "I got lonesome for the residential school system because everything's done for you. You become dependent on that regime," he said. He joined the Canadian Forces.

In the air force, he started boxing "because I was fat." His coach told him he had natural talent. He returned to Winnipeg and boxed his way to becoming Manitoba amateur light middleweight champion in 1969 and 1970.

He also obtained a business administration diploma from Success College, then spent three years as a full-time student studying commerce at University of Manitoba.

That was a positive he took from residential schools.

"I got to learn," he said. "If I went to school here on the reserve, I would never have accomplished what I did. Education on the reserve is substandard to this day."

But he was an angry, bitter man who hated white people. He started drinking.

He didn't graduate from U of M but his schooling helped him get administrative jobs with several First Nations over the years, including director of programming with the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council, and director of operations with Swan Lake First Nation. He married, started a family, drank, divorced. His drinking cost him jobs and relationships.

He got into trouble with the law and the court ordered him into Alcoholics Anonymous. He was living in Edmonton at the time. He spent 2 1/2 years in AA and seeing a psychiatrist. "That's how I found myself," he said.

He returned to Manitoba and started drumming up support for residential school compensation in the 1980s, along with friends such as the late Melvin Swan from Lake Manitoba First Nation and Jim and Russell Tobacco from Moose Lake First Nation. "It was very hard to even convince our own leadership," he said. He visited other reserves to gather support.

"I was amazed at the (positive) reception I got," he said. "I didn't realize how enormous the issue was."

He would become part of a Canada-wide court action that led to Ottawa's compensation agreement. He also launched Spirit Winds, the Manitoba association of former residential school students, of which he is still president.

He started his own janitorial equipment and cleaning supplies company, eventually moving back to Peguis in 1995. He remarried in 2000.

There's a saying that the hardest thing a government can do is give out money and that may be the case with the residential school compensation. As head of Spirit Winds, Mason knows many claimants, including him, are unhappy with their payments.

He's unhappy his settlement agreement doesn't recognize his years spent at the Dauphin school because there are no records. That would be worth another $21,000 under the Common Experience Payment ($3,000 per year).

His compensation payment was mostly under the Independent Assessment Process that handles sexual abuse and serious physical abuse. Many sexual abuse victims have received payments in the $200,000 to $250,000 range, he said.

Mason harbours no ill will towards the Christian churches that ran the schools. His son from his first marriage, Kyle, is a Pentecostal minister and executive director of the North End Family Centre in Winnipeg.

To date, under the Common Experience Payment program, the federal government has paid out about $1.58 billion to more than 76,000 aboriginal people for their residential school experiences -- an average of nearly $21,000 per case.

Under the IAP, which targets abuse cases, the federal government has paid out $905 million to 7,400 claimants -- an average of about $122,000 per case. That total payout could double as more than 9,000 claims are still being processed.

The deadline for applying for the Common Experience Payment is Sept. 19, 2011, and for the Independent Assessment Process it is Sept. 19, 2012.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2011 H5

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