December 6, 2019

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Residential-school hearings wrap up in Winnipeg

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Garry Dano plays a healing song on his drum during the closing ceremony for the Winnipeg Hearing Centre Tuesday. </p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Garry Dano plays a healing song on his drum during the closing ceremony for the Winnipeg Hearing Centre Tuesday.

The discreet downtown office filled with original indigenous art work was a safe place for some 1,200 survivors of Indian residential schools to make claims for years of sexual and physical abuse they endured as children.

The Winnipeg Hearing Centre closed Tuesday.

Two elders conducted a series of indigenous ceremonies to mark the occasion, including a purification with a sage smudge, pipe ceremony, healing songs and a final prayer "to help us walk in a good way, and forgive and let go."

"Today marks a milestone in the work of the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat," chief adjudicator Dan Shapiro said.

"To date we have held over 26,000 hearings for claimants who submitted a claim for abuse at Indian residential schools," Shapiro said. "We have resolved 91 per cent of the 38,000 claims from former students."

Another hearing room is still open in Vancouver, but is due to wrap up later this year. Just 200 cases are left to be heard.

From the time the Winnipeg hearing centre opened in 2009, staff with the federal secretariat from Gatineau, Que., Regina, Winnipeg and Vancouver also organized hundreds of hearings in locations from hospitals to nursing homes, from private houses to prisons and in dozens of remote First Nations.

Ottawa spent more than $3 billion on compensation payments, with settlements through the hearing process averaging about $80,000 per abuse survivor.

A separate "common experience" settlement was also paid out previously to tens of thousands more. That cost was more than $2 billion.

The two compensation mechanisms were part of the largest class-action settlement in Canada's history and a separate component of the same settlement that also saw the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which conducted its own hearings into survivors' stories.

The testimony from the abuse hearings remain contentious. They are at the centre of a court battle between Ottawa and the TRC; the TRC wants them preserved; the settlement's secretariat promised survivors they'd be destroyed.

Headed by former Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, now a senator, the commission issued its 94 recommendations a year ago for reconciliation between the country's indigenous people and other Canadians.

The event Tuesday held elements of that spirit of reconciliation and elders Debbie Cielen and Garry Dano emphasized that shutting the doors on the hearings shouldn't be mistaken for closing the books on a dark chapter in Canada's history.

Residential schools operated in Canada for 150 years, the majority staffed by churches but funded by Ottawa. The last one closed in 1996. For generations, First Nations children were taken from their families and placed in the boarding schools for years at a time. The practice was a cornerstone of accepted and often quoted federal policy "to kill the Indian in the child" and eradicate indigenous culture in Canada.

"This chapter is not over yet; probably won't be for another five generations. There's a lot of work to be done yet, in the area of healing," Dano said. Dano attended the first hearing ever held in Winnipeg, in 2005, years before the hearing room was set up in 2009.

He's now a spiritual adviser at the Remand Centre, where he said he works with the grandchildren of residential school survivors caught up in the justice system.

The only survivor Tuesday was Dianne Starr, a great-grandmother, now 66, who acknowledged mixed feelings inside the room where survivors disclosed the horrible memories of their childhoods.

Starr was taken as a girl of six from her home in Sagkeeng First Nation, 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg, to Kenora, Ont. She spent eight years at the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, known for some of the more horrific abuses exacted on children.

Starr said she got compensation but she gave it to her children and grandchildren. The legacy of the abuse she suffered is inter-generational and highly personal: even now, she regrets her children's childhoods and her lack of parenting skills.

"I pity my kids and sometimes I do (feel guilty) because I want to be a good mom," Starr said.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Tuesday, June 7, 2016 at 10:54 PM CDT: Corrects chief adjudicator's name.

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