Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya ‘satisfied’ with proposed Indian Day School settlement

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya. (File photo/CKLB).

This story contains passages that may trigger traumatic memories. Be warned before reading.

“I was in the day school (in Tulita) when the teacher broke a three-foot ruler over my back,” says Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya. “We were strapped with leather straps, got our ears pulled and they didn”t say good things about Aboriginal people.”

Yakeleya shared some of his experience in day school during a press conference on Friday afternoon to deliver Dene Nation’s response to the three-day approval process held in Winnipeg for the proposed Indian Day School settlement.

“That’s the old question,” added Yakeleya, “how much money is going to be satisfactory to you?” But to him, “it’s not about the money” so much as Canada acknowledging its wrongdoing.

Under the proposed settlement, former day school students could qualify for one of five levels of harm. The base level for proving you attended day school is $10,000, while level five, those who suffered the worst abuse, can receive $200,000.

Reports say there are up to 140,000 eligible former students for compensation. The settlement stipulates that Canada is making a minimum of $1.27 billion available for level one claims, up to a maximum of $1.4 billion (i.e. if all 140,000 students would get the base amount). There is no maximum for the level two to five claims.

Yakeleya said he was satisfied with having a base amount of $10,000 for all former students who sign up to be part of the settlement. He also pointed to the $200 million legacy fund communities can apply to for healing programs.

‘Best deal for Canada’

During the proceedings in Winnipeg, Justice Michael Phelan who is overseeing the case, also heard from objectors

One of the more vocal opponents to the proposed settlement is Anishinaabe lawyer Joan Jack who filed the original lawsuit for day school survivors ten years ago.

Gowling WLG, the firm now representing claimants, presented several amendments to the proposed settlement on the first day. Some of the noteworthy ones include extending the opt-out period from 60 to 90 days, extending the claims application period from one year to 2.5 years and the use of paid form-fillers will not be allowed.

In an interview with CKLB on May 16, Jack said she still believes the proposed settlement is the “best deal for Canada.”

Asked about this, Yakeleya pointed to the settlements opt-out clause. He said he believed the proponents negotiated as well as they could but added he’d support those who wanted to pursue their own legal challenge.

He also said he welcomed some of the points made by the objectors during the hearing such as prioritizing compensation going to elders.

Ongoing work

There are currently 30 day schools from the Northwest Territories on the official list. Yakeleya said Dene Nation was working with Gowling to add another four or five.

He added they were also working together, and with communities, to identify what kind of resources would be necessary if the settlement was approved.

Critics have said the settlement doesn’t offer enough support to those who may want to become claimants, especially when it comes to collecting medical documents or similar supporting documents to access the higher levels of compensation.

Yakeleya said it was still too early to know exactly what support would be necessary. There is currently no timeline as to when Justice Phelan will issue a decision on whether to approve the settlement, but Yakeleya said they were hoping by the end of the summer.

He also highlighted the time and effort made by survivors to get to this point, including the late Garry McLean after whom the case is named, and the spirit of Indigenous people.

“You really don’t know the life of an Aboriginal person unless you can walk in their shoes,” said Yakeleya. “And know what’s it’s like to have the RCMP threaten your parents and put them in jail for not sending their kids to school, or the Indian agent cutting off your food ration… That’s the power of the Indian Act.”

The proposed settlement can be found here, along with other documents such as letters of support and objection forms.

About the Author

Francis Tessier-Burns
Francis was a reporter with CKLB from January 2019 to March 2023. In his time with CKLB, he had the immense pleasure and honour of learning about northern Indigenous cultures.