Ten years after the Gottfriedson case class action lawsuit was filed to claim for compensation over the destruction of language and culture caused by the Canadian Indian Residential School system (IRSS), an agreement was made public in January 2023: Canada’s federal government is prepared to pay a settlement sum of $2.8 billion into a new trust fund which shall enable 325 First Nations to invest into cultural and language revitalization. The agreement is just one step on the journey to building trustful relationships between Canadian Aboriginals and the settler-colonial state, but it is an important one, overdue and urgently needed.
On January 21st, Canadian state officials held a news conference in Vancouver with Shane Gottfriedson, the former chief of the Tk’emlups Nation and British Columbia regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, who filed the “Gottfriedson class action” lawsuit in 2012. This case combined claims made for band reparations and daytime students who had survived the IRSS. As children and teenagers, the latter were forced to attend the residential schools during the day but, because they could spend the nights at home, they were not included in the 2006 residential schools settlement. Addressing part of the Gottfriedson case, an out-of-court settlement was already reached in 2021, between the Federal government and individual day students who had attended residential schools between 1920 and 1996. It was approved by the Federal Court in September 2021 and intended to compensate for the loss of culture and language suffered by those who were forced to attend residential schools and their descendants. The second part of the case, which concerned the band claims, was still open until January 2023. The announced settlement for this collective strand of claims has to be approved by a Federal Court, due in February, because the trial was put on hold when the parties agreed to negotiate. The Federal Court will evaluate whether the settlement is fair, reasonable and in the best interest of the class members. It can be expected to set a final point to the Gottfriedson lawsuit matter.
What is the Case All About?
The public announcement made this January says that the Canadian federal government and the 325 First Nations represented in the Gottfriedson case as claimants agree to settle their legal litigation with a $2.8 billion compensation to be paid over a span of 20 years, to make up for the loss of language and culture inflicted on the claimants by the IRSS. If the Federal Court approves this agreement, a fund shall be created to enable investment into cultural and language revitalization efforts. The fund shall be managed by an independent board of nine directors, all of whom are Aboriginal Canadians, and the federal government would appoint only one of them. Marc Miller, currently serving as Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations in the Federal Cabinet, commented on the agreement, stating that while it cannot make up for the past, “what it can do is address the collective harm caused by Canada’s past”. Miller also stressed that, for the first time, bands were being compensated and supported in their efforts to revive, protect, promote and sustain Indigenous languages and cultures. Shane Gottfriedson agreed with this in his comments, but also made it clear that “it will take many generations for us to heal. This settlement is about taking steps towards undoing the damage that was done to our Nations”. In the same vein, Garry Feschuk – a further Representative Plaintiff and Former Chief of shíshálh – stressed that “it has taken Canada far too long to own up to its history, own up to the genocide it committed and recognize the collective harm caused to our Nations by Residential Schools. It is time that Canada not only recognize this harm, but help undo it by walking with us. This settlement is a good first step.”
Given that the devastating impact of Canada’s Residential Schooling policy on Aboriginal Peoples had been documented for decades and became subject of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC), which concluded its work in 2015, the currently declared settlement is a rather late response. The TRCC was mandated to “reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools” as well as “guide and inspire a process of truth and healing, leading toward reconciliation within Aboriginal families, and between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal communities, churches, governments, and Canadians generally”. When the TRCC published its investigation results and pointed out that the IRSS had clearly been designed to eradicate Aboriginal culture and identity, to assimilate the Aboriginal peoples of Canada into Canadian settler society and to destroy their cultural identity – meaning a cultural genocide – it also formulated 94 Calls to Action which are intended to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation”. At the closing ceremony in December 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized to the Indigenous people of Canada for the IRSS, and said that “what is needed is a total renewal of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples”.
The Legacy of Colonialism Renders Multigenerational Impact
Surely – a total renewal of relations can impossibly be achieved within a decade. But Canada already issued a Statement of Reconciliation, acknowledging and apologizing for the failures and horrors of the IRSS, in January of 1998. After that, it took ten years until PM Stephen Harper officially apologized for the IRSS and another seven years until PM Trudeau declared the “total renewal” of relations as the common path towards reconciliation. In view of the devastating effects of the IRSS, and no less of the vast dimensions addressed by the TRC Calls to Action, it is striking that initiatives to remedy the damages and sufferings tend to be driven foremost by the affected Aboriginal communities, and that lengthy legal litigations appear to be necessary to enact meaningful changes, while time is of the essence.
The cultural and language losses, the litigation value of which was negotiated over the past quarter of a century, mean a multigenerational crisis: the IRSS was a structure of over 135 boarding schools, organized by the federal government and several Christian congregations in Canada, from the 1870s to 1996. Over 150.000 children endured devastating conditions, including, but not limited to, malnutrition, disease, emotional neglect, and sexual and physical abuse. For all children who were compelled to attend, the use of their Aboriginal language was strictly forbidden. They were forced to learn English, and all expressions of Aboriginal culture were suppressed by the school administrators, in compliance with Canadian policy directives, including the Residential Schools Policy. Accordingly, the 2015 TRCC report states that the IRSS was “a central element in the federal government’s Aboriginal policy”, “aimed at ‘killing the Indian in the child’ and assimilating First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children into white settler society”. Hence, the IRSS had long-lasting consequences not ‘merely’ for individual pupils or families but for the Indigenous population at large and is seen today as the major root cause of social problems that many Aboriginal communities are faced with. Compensating Aboriginal Canadians for the consequences of colonial assimilation policies is overdue and urgently needed: Indigenous peoples are in a race against time when it comes to revitalizing the cultures and languages of their ancestors.
The Urgent Need to Act
But why should a fund be necessary to revitalize Indigenous cultures and languages? – The answer is simple: the Canadian assimilation policies were very effective in doing damage. Some Aboriginal Canadian communities have just a handful of fluent speakers left, in some others, there are only “silent speakers”, i.e., elders who still comprehend (parts of) their native language but who were not allowed to use it and are thus not able to speak the language. Neither are there recordings, leaving no possibilities for learning by ear. Some IRSS survivors were lucky insofar as their families lived close to a residential school, making them day students; however, many nevertheless lost their language because their families feared repression and respected the language ban, and surrounding TV and radio soundscapes were English and/or French.
In fact, the re-acquisition of Aboriginal languages is complex and costly. Projects working to preserve and reactivate them need to employ digital platforms, videos, sound-apps and machine learning – which also applies vice versa: an almost lost Aboriginal language from the Australian outback was employed to improve human communication with artificial intelligence. And yet, there is no need to cite such surprising cases to recognize the relevance of indigenous languages: When the UN declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, it argued that “languages play a crucial role in our daily lives. They are not only our first medium for communication, education and social integration, but are also at the heart of each person’s unique identity, cultural history and memory. The ongoing loss of indigenous languages is particularly devastating, as the complex knowledges and cultures they foster are increasingly being recognized as strategic resources for good governance, peacebuilding, reconciliation, and sustainable development.” The last point is also brought forward a lot in Canada: Ted Cadwallader, for example, who works to restore ancestral languages in Vancouver Island, thinks that Indigenous languages could save the land because “embedded in Indigenous languages is a different way of understanding the world. And I think there’s a potential there to save us, to give us a different way of living on this territory.”
That said, one should realize that Aboriginal language rights are just one cornerstone of the healing process, even though they are so important. Of the 94 actionable policy recommendations given by the TRCC in 2015 to aid justice and reconciliation, only five recommendations target language and culture. And while the settlement of the Gottfriedson case and the implied recognition of the collective damage which bands experienced as a consequence of the IRS policies is positive news, the overall implementation process is slow and many Calls to Action still await to be tackled. As of January 2023, 13 of the 94 Calls to Action are completed, which means that, if Canada continues this pace, all the recommendations will not be implemented until 2065.