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Ottawa wants senior's $1,500 award: Residential school case: As a child, native woman beaten, not allowed to attend mother's funeral

Richard Foot

Canwest News Service

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Page A3

Federal officials are appealing a $1,500 compensation payment to an elderly Manitoba woman who as a child tried to escape from an Indian residential school after she was refused permission to attend her mother's funeral.

Flora Merrick never sued the government for her treatment in Canada's now-defunct residential school system. This summer, however, she applied for compensation under the government's Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process -- an out-of-court program designed to expedite the settlement of residential school grievances.

After hearing her story in July, a government-appointed adjudicator awarded Ms. Merrick $1,500 in damages for what he called "inappropriate punishment."

Ms. Merrick attended the Portage La Prairie Residential School from the time she was five years old. In 1932, when she was 15, her father arrived at the school in a horse-drawn wagon to tell Ms. Merrick and her sister that their mother had died, and to take them to the funeral.

"The principal said, 'We don't allow that,' " Ms. Merrick said in an interview yesterday. "I don't know why he said that. My Dad went away disappointed, and my little sister and I cried so much we were taken away and put in a room, away from the rest of the school."

After two weeks of around-the-clock segregation, Ms. Merrick and her sister were returned to the school population. But so angry was Ms. Merrick at missing her mother's funeral that she tried to run away. She was caught by her teachers in the bush, taken back to the school and strapped on the arms as punishment.

This summer, adjudicator Terrance Chinn -- who in his judgment describes Ms. Merrick as "an admirable woman who has lived a noble life" -- said the strapping was "within the standards of the day" and therefore does not qualify for compensation.

However, Mr. Chinn awarded Ms. Merrick $1,500 anyway because of what he called the "arbitrariness in the whole matter" and the fact Ms. Merrick's memories "of this harsh incident during this most traumatic of times ... bother her greatly to this day."

Although disappointed by the small size of the award, Ms. Merrick, a widow who lives on the Long Plains Reserve near Portage La Prairie, decided to accept the money.

"It's not very much, but I've never had lots of money and I could use it," she said.

Last month, however, the government appealed Ms. Merrick's award, asking the chief adjudicator in the ADR program to overturn the judgment. A letter from Mario Dion , deputy minister of the Department of Indian Residential Schools Resolution, says Mr. Chinn was wrong to award Ms. Merrick any money, given that her punishment was considered, at the time, an acceptable way of dealing with children who ran away from school.

Kirsty Jackson, a spokeswoman from Mr. Dion's office, declined to discuss Ms. Merrick's case yesterday, except to say: "The government requests this review reluctantly; however, we have a duty to Canadian taxpayers to ensure that all awards fall within the mandate of this process."

Ms. Merrick's lawyer said he and others who handle residential school cases are amazed at the pettiness of this particular appeal -- especially since the ADR process is intended to speed and streamline residential school settlements.

"I don't know what's behind this, but it seems federal lawyers are just running amok," Dennis Troniak said.

"Here's an 88-year-old lady who was callously forbidden from attending her mother's funeral. She gets a small award and now they want to appeal it."

Mr. Troniak said it will cost the government more in legal fees to appeal Ms. Merrick's award than to pay the compensation.

"It just shows you the meanness with which they're treating these former students," he said.

Ottawa has so far spent more than $73-million compensating 1,260 native people for residential school abuses ranging from rape and assault to psychological trauma.

Of those settlements, only 186 were reached inside the ADR process.

More than 11,000 other former students still have court claims pending against the government.

The Canadian Bar Association asked the federal government last month to compensate each of the 90,000 aboriginals who went through the residential school system.

The lawyers' group unanimously passed a resolution that said Ottawa should provide mandatory compensation for every native student who went through a residential school because their language and culture were compromised.

The lawyers also said the automatic compensation should be complemented by an allowance for additional money in cases of physical or sexual abuse.

The residential schools were funded by Ottawa and run by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches.

Canwest News Service