In 2016, Theresa Henderson sat in the gallery of a Winnipeg courtroom and listened to a lawyer describe the residence where Henderson had spent one and a half years as “home away from home.”
Henderson could picture the two boxy white buildings, one dormitory for boys and one for girls. She remembered lying awake at night, missing her parents and siblings. She wished she could talk to them about the boys at school who called her a “squaw” and threatened to beat her up. About the van full of young men who stopped and offered her free alcohol if she came with them. About the house parent who forcibly kissed her.
The lawyer had her back turned. She was speaking to the judge, explaining how the Teulon Residence should not be considered a residential school, and therefore Canada had no obligation to the students who had lived there.
Hot tears pushed up under Henderson’s eyelids. She wished the lawyer would turn around and speak to the former students. She wished the lawyer would listen to their stories and try to understand how it felt to be sent away from your family to a place where you were expected to forget your language and traditions and melt obediently into another culture.
The hearing was part of a six-year court battle over whether the institution in Teulon, Man., qualified as a residential school and whether the students who lived there in the 1960s and 1970s were entitled to the same financial compensation as other residential school survivors.
But for Henderson, the case wasn’t about the money. It was about recognition. For many survivors, financial compensation is not the most important thing. Reconciliation requires a public acknowledgment of wrongdoing and an opportunity for the wronged to tell their stories. For this reason, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held public hearings across Canada. “There are no shortcuts,” said Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the commission.
Henderson grew up in Split Lake, a small community in northern Manitoba that had a school that went up to Grade 9. Her parents supported their daughter’s wish to be sent to a high school in Winnipeg. Instead, the Department of Indian Affairs enrolled Henderson at Teulon Collegiate, a public high school in Teulon, a small farming village 50 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Henderson was 14 when she boarded a bush plane and began the 870-kilometre journey to her new home.
The Teulon Residence had been built by the Presbyterian Church in the early 1900s as a boarding home for the children of missionaries or distant farming families. In 1925, it was transferred to The United Church of Canada. In 1960, the Department of Indian Affairs made arrangements to send students from northern communities there. The government would pay for their room and board, while house parents hired by the board of directors would care for the children.
During the time Henderson lived at the Teulon Residence, she endured racist taunts from students at the high school and was introduced to alcohol by friends. Most of the house parents treated her well, but she says one man sexually harassed the girls, including her. Henderson started getting in trouble for drinking with her friends. She ran away from the residence multiple times, until the Department of Indian Affairs eventually transferred her to a high school in Winnipeg.
On June 11, 2008, then prime minister Stephen Harper stood up in the House of Commons to apologize to the survivors of residential schools for a “sad chapter” in Canada’s history, a period of more than a century ending in the 1990s, during which the federal government took tens of thousands of Indigenous children from their families and forced them to attend institutions. There they were stripped of their language, traditions, spirituality and culture in an attempt to assimilate them into the settler society. Most of the residential schools were operated jointly by the federal government and Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist and United churches. Students were indoctrinated into Christianity and punished for speaking their own languages. Many suffered abuse.
Henderson was working in The Pas, Man., on the day of the apology. As she watched Harper apologize on television, she felt as though he was speaking to her.
“The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly,” Harper said. It never occurred to Henderson that her experience might not count.
The apology came on the heels of the largest class-action settlement in Canada’s history. In 2006, the Canadian government agreed to compensate every survivor of residential schools $10,000 for their first year and $3,000 for each subsequent year, with additional compensation for students who had been abused.
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement contained a list of over 130 schools whose students were eligible for compensation. It was only when Henderson submitted her claim that she learned Teulon wasn’t on the list. She was surprised. Why was she left out?
What Henderson didn’t know at the time was that the Teulon Residence had appeared on earlier versions of the list. Cuthbert Munroe, who had also lived at the Teulon Residence, was working with residential survivors for an organization in Garden Hill First Nation when he saw one of the lists. Teulon was named, but only in brackets next to Norway House. Norway House is hundreds of kilometres north of Teulon. There’s no obvious connection between the two communities.
But Munroe knew that many students had been transferred from Norway House to Teulon when the former closed down in the late 1960s. He wondered if this connection had led to the two names being erroneously combined. A couple of years later when the settlement agreement was implemented, Teulon had disappeared from the list.
Munroe began scouring United Church archives and meeting with Indigenous leaders. He wanted to get Teulon back on the list. The settlement agreement contained a mechanism by which institutions could be added to the agreement, provided they met two criteria. The Canadian government had to have removed children from their homes and placed them in the residence for educational purposes. And Canada had to have been “jointly or solely” responsible for the operation of the residence and the care of the children.
Munroe and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs wrote to Ottawa asking for Teulon to be added to the agreement. Their request was declined, so they hired a lawyer and, in 2014, brought their case before Perry Schulman, a Manitoba judge tasked with helping administer the settlement.
Munroe’s request was one of many. By the end of 2017, Canada had received applications for 1,531 separate institutions to be added to the agreement. To date, all but nine of these institutions have been ruled ineligible. In some cases, insufficient information was available. Some were day schools, which were not part of the settlement. Others were ruled out because they were operated by provincial governments or churches rather than the federal government.
Justice Schulman listened to the lawyers’ arguments that the Canadian government was responsible for the Teulon residents and that the institution should qualify as a residential school. He also heard a counter-argument from the Crown, which contended that Teulon was never meant to be on the final list, and that since it had been owned by the United Church and governed by a church-appointed board, the federal government wasn’t responsible.
Justice Schulman sided with the Crown. Neither side could explain the discrepancy between the two lists. Ultimately, the final one stood. And, although the government had placed children at the residence, Schulman said it hadn’t been responsible for their care.
Munroe was discouraged. There was still the possibility of an appeal, but the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs told him they couldn’t pay more legal fees. Munroe had been working on the case for several years on his own time. No one seemed willing to help him take it further. But he wanted justice to be served.
There were an estimated 1,000 students who had boarded at the Teulon Residence. They had all been separated from their families and endured the same cultural whitewashing that other survivors had. Why should they be denied compensation?
So Munroe found new lawyers willing to work on the case and urged people to contribute to the cause. Henderson and a group of women organized two socials that raised thousands of dollars for legal costs.
On Nov. 22, 2016, Charles Huband, a lawyer with the firm Taylor McCaffrey LLP, appealed Justice Schulman’s decision before the Manitoba Court of Appeal. Huband believed there was ample evidence to show that Canada had been “jointly responsible” for both the residence and the students living there. Yes, the United Church had owned the facility, and the board had hired the house parents. But the Department of Indian Affairs had taken the students from their communities, paid for their room and board (which in some years constituted 80 percent of the residence’s annual funding), regularly inspected the facility, provided guidance counsellors and medical examinations for the students, and given money for school supplies and clothing.
There was a clause in the settlement used to help determine government responsibility: Had Canada “stood as the parent to the child”? Huband believed it had.
Three judges listened to Huband’s argument. But after considering it, they dismissed the appeal. No palpable error had been made in the first trial, Justice Holly Beard wrote in her decision.
In his factum submitted to the Manitoba Court of Appeal, Huband described the settlement agreement as a treaty. The spirit of a treaty is reconciliation, not exactitude, he wrote, and therefore the courts should be generous in their definition of residential schools.
But Justice Beard took a narrower view. She didn’t use the word “treaty” to characterize the settlement agreement. Instead, she quoted material that referred to it as a “compromise” and a “deal.”
After the ruling, Munroe’s legal team sought permission to appeal the decision before the Supreme Court of Canada, but the request was turned down. It was the end of the road for Munroe. After six years, he had lost.
With the court’s decision, Henderson was left feeling as though the prime minister’s apology had been snatched away from her. She and other former students of the Teulon Residence say that the reconciliation process has failed them. Their wounds have deepened. They’ve been denied the opportunity to tell their stories and to have their injury publicly acknowledged.
When Henderson filed her claim for compensation, she filled out a form detailing abuse she says she experienced. But she never put it in the mail. “Why send it out,” she asks, “when we’re not recognized as residential school survivors anyway?”
This story first appeared in The Observer’s May 2018 edition with the title “Invisible survivors.”