Police brace for spike in violence, scams fuelled by native compensation cash

Police brace for spike in violence, scams fuelled by native compensation cash

Sep 17, 2007

OTTAWA (CP) — Nearly $2 billion in native residential schools compensation will be a mixed blessing, say frontline workers who fear major spikes in alcohol and drug use, family violence and exploitation.

Police forces are on alert across Canada as First Nations and nearby cities brace for the cash injection. About 80,000 former students can apply as of Wednesday for common experience payments – $10,000 for the first year they attended the once-mandatory network of church-run schools, and $3,000 for each subsequent year.

Cheques are expected to average $28,000 and will start arriving within a month.

RCMP Chief Supt. Doug Reti, head of national aboriginal policing services, believes most people will spend or invest the money wisely. But others will drink or shoot up payments that could also attract con artists bent on scamming the most vulnerable people, he fears.

“Most will deal with this extra money in a responsible way,” he stressed Monday. “But there’s always those people that are easily taken advantage of, and fall through the cracks.

“We have a high rate of addictions, a high rate of suicide. One of my biggest concerns is the raised level of abuse of alcohol, drugs … and the fallout from that type of thing.

“I know pretty well first-hand what that kind of injection of money can do in a community,” said Reti, who has worked with First Nations in five provinces.

About 150,000 students attended residential schools that operated in every province except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island from the 1870s to the 1970s. While many former students say the schools offered a good education and discipline, Ottawa conceded almost 10 years ago that physical and sexual abuse was rampant.

A flood of lawsuits followed. The federal government offered basic compensation and an out-of-court process to staunch further litigation.

About 15,000 people are expected to use the alternative independent assessment process to pursue payments as high as $250,000 for the most serious physical and sexual harm.

More than 200 plaintiffs who opted out of the compensation deal have retained their right to sue in court.

Gina Wilson, assistant deputy minister for Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada, says a national working group has gathered frontline partners since 2006 to help First Nations ride the wave of compensation cheques.

“It’s the survivors’ money,” she said. “They’re entitled to that, and no one should tell them how to spend it. But on the other hand, communities can be prepared.”

Those raising awareness about the pitfalls of long-awaited payments must walk a fine line between concern and condescension, says Ed Bitternose of the Gordon First Nation north of Regina.

“In the early part of the 1990s we tried to give that support and advice. People just essentially told us to mind our own business.”

He was referring to how 230 people on the reserve received out-of-court settlements – most of them between $25,000 and $150,000 – for widespread sexual abuse suffered at the Gordon Residential School.

Many people fixed up their houses and yards, took trips and bought stocks. Others “got drunk for two weeks,” Bitternose said.

He hopes it will be different when about 800 of the 3,000 band members receive cheques under the final settlement.

“We try to make people aware… But those people receiving that kind of money, if they choose to do the drug, alcohol and violence scene, there’s really not much we can do to stop them other than call the police.”

Bitternose, 58, lived at the hilltop institution from the ages of nine to 16. He expects to receive $31,000 in common experience payments, and hopes for more through the new out-of-court process.

He’s among many people working to ready First Nations for an often unprecedented cash influx. They’re offering advice on everything from setting up bank accounts and investments, to avoiding the myriad high-interest “credit rebuilding” offers that compensation recipients can expect.

Anne Derrick, a provincial court judge in Nova Scotia, once represented more than 400 claimants who sued for abuse at three reform schools in the province. They received varying payments 10 years ago under a $33.5-million compensation program.

Financial, psychological and drug counselling were built into the program, Derrick said. Some recipients bought small houses and used the money as a kind of fresh start, she recalled.

Other clients “were very vulnerable. And quite frankly, probably more vulnerable than I fully appreciated.”

One young man made headlines after blowing $20,000 of his payment on a two-week cocaine bender.

“I certainly saw some tragic cases where the compensation ultimately didn’t bring the kind of benefits that … I and the other lawyers, people in government who were committed to the program, and the other survivors all hoped would be the case.”

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