For many survivors, the settlement process allows them to share their story for the first time. This image is of students and staff at the St. Eugene Mission Residential School.
Though he admits it might sound strange, Lyall Gardiner says being an adjudicator within the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement process has been the best job he’s ever had.
Lyall grew up on a farm in southern Manitoba, and knew nothing about First Nations people throughout his childhood. When he went into law and moved to the northern part of the province he started to have more contact with Indigenous people. As a lawyer, Lyall started a private practice and became a prosecutor.
He prosecuted many Indigenous people, and after a few years says, “I realized I identified more with these people than the prosecution.” He changed careers and after several years received a job offer from a First Nations Law Centre in Williams Lake, B.C. He and his wife, Sandra, moved there and he represented Tsilhquot’in people from surrounding communities.
After the Law Centre closed he ran a private practice representing First Nations people.
For the last nine years, as an adjudicator within the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement process, Lyall has been hearing claims from individuals who were sexually or physically abused in residential schools. He estimates hearing about 400 claims to date within that process, which in total had approximately 35,000 applicants.
For the most part, those who went through the residential school system suffered greatly, notes Lyall. Residential schools impacted and continue to impact many generations of Indigenous people through intergenerational trauma.
While some Canadians say Indigenous people who went to residential schools should “get over it,” a young person who is abused, assaulted or raped in a school setting, does not just get over it, Lyall notes.
Residential school survivors may, like others who have gone through traumatic experiences, turn to substances as a way to forget and survive. Lyall notes this was a common theme in the hearings – the addictions problems that followed peoples’ time in residential schools, and which resulted in incarcerations, family dysfunction, and other negative impacts.
While he heard stories of abuse, betrayal and cultural genocide, the role he played brought him into intimate contact with people of immense courage, perseverance and generosity.
“I wouldn’t have thought it unreasonable for (the claimants) to come to hearings with a lot of anger, and maybe anger towards me because as a white male, I represent the systems that have oppressed them. Lyall says.
“However claimants came very humbly, very respectfully , which was in no way requested or expected. They told their stories in a very honest and straightforward manner. I really respected that – it stood out to me,” he says.
Lyall is based in Calgary, but travelled throughout western Canada and the Arctic for the hearings. The hearings were often held in hotel meeting rooms, outside the community of the claimant. The length of the hearing depended on how long the individual wanted to talk, sometimes a couple hours or most of the day. A typical hearing would include the adjudicator, the claimant, the claimant’s lawyer, a Government of Canada representative, a church representative, and a health support worker. The claimant decides who is permitted in the hearing.
Lyall first got involved in the settlement process because his wife, Sandra, volunteered with the United Church to attend the hearings as an observer.
“One of the common things I often heard was that people had never told their stories before,” Lyall says, noting some were ashamed or embarrassed. “Many came and said it was a relief to be able to tell their story to someone and particularly someone who would listen to them and hear them,” he says.
Healing for residential schools survivors is an ongoing, life long experience. Adjudicators can award up to $10,000 compensation, from a future care fund to fulfil a plan, such as counselling.
“We would conclude these hearings by going around the table and talking about our experience in the hearing itself, and that’s always been a pretty positive thing, I’ve found,” he says.
Read related story with Lyall’s wife, Sandra: https://newscoopyyc.coop/a-personal-journey-of-reconciliation/