Dene Nation backs day school process, works to verify schools

Norman Yakeleya, the Dene National Chief, addresses reporters at a news conference in May 2019
Norman Yakeleya, the Dene National Chief, addresses reporters at a news conference in May 2019. Sara Wicks/Cabin Radio

The Dene Nation says it supports the ongoing day school settlement process and is working to verify which schools in the Northwest Territories would be included.

After hearing three days of submissions this week, a federal judge is deciding whether to approve a settlement that would award former Indian day school students between $10,000 and $200,000 each.

Norman Yakeleya, the Dene National Chief, said on Friday he felt the process of reviewing the proposed settlement was going well and being handled appropriately.

Yakeleya attended both day school and residential school – the difference being that day school students could return home each evening, whereas residential school students could not.



Speaking at a news conference, he said that while he “would not wish my worst enemy” to go through the residential school settlement process – which resulted in an agreement announced in 2006 – he felt the day school process was different.

“This process is a friendlier process,” said Yakeleya. “That’s what I like about this settlement, that it’ll go in a manner that’s culturally sensitive. Mental health supports will be there.”

Yakeleya said the Dene Nation is working with Gowling WLG – the law firm handling day school survivors’ class-action lawsuit against the federal government – to find resources to help people in the Northwest Territories.

He hopes that could include the creation of a staff position at the Dene Nation to assist people filling out claims, should the settlement be approved.



“Even if someone fills out a form, it triggers some mental emotions,” he said. “We’ve got to have people there to be with them.”

Warning: The remainder of this report contains statements regarding abuse at day schools that readers may find disturbing.

Yakeleya said research positions being created by Gowling, in partnership with regional Indigenous associations, will help identify to which day schools any settlement will apply.

Currently, between 25 and 35 schools in the territory have been identified, he said.

“There’s a process to verifying these schools in the Northwest Territories,” said Yakeleya, “because some of them in our small communities, those schools are torn down. And there’s other ones that are replacing them.

“So we have a long way to verify some of the schools that people are saying are not on the list. We’re going through that process right now. We’re going to have independent researchers verify those schools.”

Proceedings have taken more than a decade to reach this point.

Garry McLean, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, passed away earlier this year.



‘It’s give and take’

Not all former day school students believe the settlement being proposed is acceptable.

This week, at the Winnipeg courthouse where submissions were heard, APTN reported 28 objectors put their cases to Judge Michael Phelan.

“I object to $10,000,” said former student Clarence Sumner of Pinaymootang First Nation in Manitoba. “That’s a slap in the face.”

More: Official website of the day school class action

However, other day school survivors told the judge they welcomed the proposal.

Mariette Buckshot of Kitigan Zibi Algonquin Nation in Quebec said her 86-year-old father was psychologically damaged by his time in day school.

“This will bring people like my dad to peace,” said Mariette Buckshot of Kitigan Zibi Algonquin Nation in Quebec, according to APTN. “The doors are being closed to the hurt.”

As it stands, the settlement would award survivors between $10,000 and $200,000 each according to the abuse they suffered. Students who faced physical and sexual abuse are eligible for larger payments.



The proposal also creates a $200 million legacy fund for “healing, wellness, education, language, culture, and commemoration for class members and their communities.”

The money would help a lot of people – families, grandchildren, Elders. I’m satisfied there is a price that is a starting block.NORMAN YAKELEYA, DENE NATIONAL CHIEF

Asked whether he was satisfied by the settlement’s financial components, Yakeleya called that “the old question.”

He told reporters: “I was in the day school at Colin Campbell School [in Tulita] when a teacher broke a three-foot ruler over my back when I was a young boy. And we were strapped with leather straps.

“They didn’t say too-good things about Aboriginal people. [Students were] psychologically abused, physically abused.

“And, you know, that’s the old question: how much money’s going to be satisfying to you?”

Listen to the Dene National Chief’s statement regarding the Indian day school settlement in full:

Yakeleya continued: “It’s not about the money. It’s about the acknowledgement by the federal government that they did wrong to the Aboriginal people.



“Certainly, the money would help a lot of people – a lot of families, a lot of grandchildren, or the Elders. And I’m satisfied that there is a price that is a starting block, going up to $200,000.”

Yakeleya noted that the agreement contains an opt-out clause, allowing those who disagree with its contents to request exclusion and, if they wish, begin their own claim.

He said: “I would say to people … it takes two to tango. You know, it’s give and take. I believe [the plaintiffs] negotiated the best they could.

“The strength of our people still remains, and this class-action lawsuit has certainly proved it.”

The Dene National Chief also serves as a Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). Among other portfolios, Yakeleya is the AFN’s spokesperson on the subject of residential schools.

Judge Phelan has not set a date for his verdict regarding the approval of the day school settlement, but told the court this week he would return a decision as soon as possible.

Sara Wicks contributed reporting.