(This story was first published in the May 2000 issue of the Anglican Journal.)
Ben Pratt is squeezing a dirty old baseball cap between his beefy fingers. We are seated in a small room in the sparkling new administrative building on the Gordon Indian Reserve in Punnichy, Sask., about 150 kilometres north of Regina. Our interview has been intense, but so far without incident. Then I asked the 44-year-old Native Canadian about his time in prison (an incarceration in the early 1970s for a crime he claims he did not commit) and the sexual abuse he suffered at the Gordon’s Indian Residential School in the 1960s.
Beginning when he was seven, Pratt was repeatedly raped by William Starr, a lay person who worked as the director of the student residence and was eventually made the administrator of the Anglican-run school. Starr was convicted in 1993 on criminal charges of sexually assaulting 10 boys between the ages of seven and 14, in incidents that took place from 1968 to 1984. Pratt later won a civil suit for the horrible abuse he suffered.
“We’re talking getting buggered and oral sex. The whole f---ing deal,” says Pratt, who has been staring at the floor for much of our conversation, but is now looking straight at me, his voice rising in anger. Memories of the abuse he suffered and the time he spent in prison bring Pratt to the edge of fury. “If the federal government was an individual and you were that person, I’d kill you right now. Honest to God I would. I’d kill you.” Those words make me suddenly and acutely aware of exactly how small the room is, and how slight the possibility that I would escape unharmed should this burly ex-boxer choose to wring my neck like he’s wringing out his ball cap. I rise and slowly open the door. The banter from the hallway is reassuring for me and has a calming effect on Pratt.
By the time I return to my chair, Pratt’s eyes are downcast again. He seems embarrassed by his outburst. But before long he is speaking again, quietly telling me that as a student at residential school, he was known by a number rather than his Christian or surname. “I wasn’t called Ben or even Pratt. I was ‘38.’ I’ll never forget that number.”
Pratt is just one of many Natives in this country who were ambushed by a federal government bent on assimilating Canada’s original inhabitants into mainstream society, thereby eradicating the “Indian problem.” This at times brutal attack is not ancient history but rather a modern phenomenon, the effects of which reverberate today in men, women and children struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, suicide, sexual abuse of all forms (some who’ve been abused have become abusers themselves), and almost boundless amounts of rage and sorrow. “I have been told not to talk about this stuff anymore,” says Pratt, whose legal adviser would prefer that his emotionally charged client not speak, for fear of jeopardizing another abuse case in which Pratt is the plaintiff. “The hell I won’t. I’ll talk to anyone I want, any time. And you can print that, too,” he says, jabbing a finger toward my notebook.
Who is to blame?
The plight of residential-school “survivors” such as Pratt raises the question of whether God’s words in the second of the Ten Commandments — “I will visit the sins of the fathers on the children for three or four generations” — are coming to pass. Must current generations of non-Natives take responsibility for backward-thinking government officials and zealous church leaders of the past, who wanted to permanently erase Native culture and tradition? Few Canadians alive today have any direct ties to the federal government’s original policy of assimilation, which required Indian children to attend residential schools, and condemned Native culture by outlawing such gatherings as potlatches and sweat lodges.
But many non-Natives are members of one of the four churches — Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist (now represented by the United Church) — that ran approximately 130 Indian residential schools that dotted the national map from Alert Bay on Vancouver Island to Shubenacadie, N.S., which some 105,000 children attended. Anglicans were involved in 28 schools — 26 through the church’s missionary society, two run by the independent New England Company based in London, England. The first Anglican school opened in 1820. The last one closed in 1971. In all, about 35,000 students are thought to have attended Anglican schools; and some of the individuals who stand accused of physically and emotionally abusing Native children are still alive, and named in the growing number of lawsuits.
For the last few years, former attendees of residential schools have been coming forward in droves, claiming they were physically, sexually and mentally abused while students at these mostly remote schools that operated in Canada, for more than a century. Thousands have retained lawyers and turned Canada’s justice system into the backdrop for the ultimate national story of crime and punishment. Their financial claims total billions of dollars, and may reach tens of billions.
As of mid-April 2000, the Government of Canada was being sued by an estimated 7,000 survivors of residential schools, with the Anglican Church named as a co-defendant in 359 cases involving about 1,600 plaintiffs. Various dioceses within the Anglican Church of Canada, and possibly the national General Synod itself, could go bankrupt as a result of the lawsuits. The General Synod, the national church body that created and is responsible for the missionary society, is already facing claims of more than $2 billion, but has assets of only about $10 million.
Several dioceses, the regional divisions of the church, face similar problems. “If just 20 of the cases the church faces go the way the first one did, we will be bankrupt, there’s no doubt about it,” says Bishop Duncan Wallace of Saskatchewan’s Diocese of Qu’Appelle, that encompasses Regina and the Gordon Reserve. Wallace is referring to a 1999 Supreme Court of British Columbia decision in which a judge found the Anglican Church and the federal government liable (60 and 40 per cent, respectively) for the abuse that dormitory supervisor Derek Clarke inflicted on Floyd Mowatt in the early 1970s, while Mowatt was a student at St. George’s Indian Residential School near Lytton, B.C. The amount was settled before the judge’s final decision. Although the amount is confidential, no one has challenged the Journal’s reported figure of about $200,000.
The collective dollar amounts from such cases are huge, but the hurt is even greater. This piece of Canada’s past has scarred not only former students, but also former staff, many of whom feel their reputations have been damaged, even though they personally did not abuse students. And it has pitted Native Anglicans, the Anglican Church of Canada and the federal government against one another in a series of legal battles that are proving costly, and even deadly; some former students are resolved to suffer the consequences of going public, but others who have not launched, but were abused, have been so shocked to learn that their secrets will be revealed in a public forum that they have taken their own lives rather than face the scrutiny and shame of appearing as witnesses at trials.
This painful reality was underscored for me again and again during the eight months I spent crisscrossing Canada by airplane and telephone, en route to being humbled, threatened, hugged and hung-up on. Along the way I met Ben Pratt and dozens of other men and women who attended residential schools, as well as those who staffed and administered these religious/educational outposts (two convicted abusers would not agree to be interviewed). All the former residential school students with whom I spoke physically changed as they told their stories, sinking like loose change into the cushions of their chairs and sofas as they detailed the abuse. Some were fondled in their beds, others were sexually assaulted in washrooms. “ I learned that it was safer to pee sitting down,” said one man who attended St. George’s. These reminiscences were usually accompanied by tears and stories of nasty divorces, alcohol and drug use and attempted suicide. Invariably, these people have the bitter, ironic impression that they are treated like second-class citizens in a country that espouses multiculturalism and equality. Nothing underscores this second-class status more dramatically than documents found at the National Archives in Ottawa, which, quite apart from the issue of individual incidents of abuse, raise real concerns about widespread malnutrition among students at residential schools.
(See the Journal’s May cover story, Ottawa experimented on native kids.)
The original mission of the 19th- and early-20th-century Church and State, in their design of residential schools for Native children, was assimilation. “Church and government leaders had come to the conclusion that the problem (as they saw it) of Aboriginal independence and ‘savagery’ could be solved by taking children from their families at an early age and instilling the ways of the dominant society during eight or nine years of residential schooling far from home,” reads the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. “Attendance was compulsory. Aboriginal languages, customs and habits of mind were suppressed. The bonds between many hundreds of Aboriginal children and their families and nations were bent and broken, with disastrous results.” Today, Native people have the highest suicide rate of any demographic group in Canada, with young Natives eight times more likely to kill themselves than non-Natives. Economic hardship is endemic, especially on reserves. While seven in 10 adult Natives generally are either working or looking for work, less than half those on reserves are working or looking for work — most of the rest being on welfare according to 1990 figures.
And of those Natives that had jobs in 1990, they earned 30 per cent less than the average Canadian wage of $27,880.
The real cost to the country? It has been estimated that if these disparities did not exist, Aboriginal people would have added $5.8 billion in goods and services to the Canadian economy in 1996. The Royal Commission reported the economic toll appears much bleaker when we realize that in 1992-93, the latest year for which information on all governments is available, Ottawa and the provinces each spent about $6 billion on Aboriginal people, mostly on programs for registered Indians and Inuit — a total of $11.6 billion. Governments spend money on all citizens, mostly for health care and education, to stimulate the economy, and facilitate transportation. But the amount spent on general programs per person for Aboriginal people is 57 per cent higher than for Canadians generally.
These national statistics are symptoms of what Natives say is a greater ill — the attempted theft of the “vehicle that drives Native culture” — namely, language, and the oral traditions that get passed along in Cree, Ojibway and various other Native communities. Without oral histories to build upon, many Native Canadians have struggled for any sense of self-identification and roots. It began at many residential schools where children were banned from speaking their mother tongues, and often beaten when they tried. “As a passive people, we put up with this for a long time,” says Christie (Willie) Hodgson of the Plains Cree Nation, a teacher who chaired the Qu’Appelle Diocesan Advisory Council of Indigenous Peoples. “It’s like Alabama for Indians up here,” says Hodgson of life in Saskatchewan. “There’s going to be civil strife.” Clashes between Native and non-Native cultures do occur, in volatile situations such as the standoff at Oka, Que., the shooting of J.J. Harper in Manitoba, and the recent accusations of police abuse of Natives in and around Saskatoon.
Conflicts like these have their roots in a lack of understanding and appreciation sparked in large part by residential schooling, and fuelled by the government policy that once established an educational system that has been called “a national crime.” It has left a legacy on reserves, street corners and prisons crowded with Native people so far down-and-out they cannot dream of being up-and-in. It makes it very difficult for many young Native people to walk in what their elders refer to as “both worlds.” And today, churches, governments — sons of a flawed system — and individual abusers, are being held accountable.
Not all students, not all teachers
But if all perspectives of Indian residential schools are to be taken into account, it must be understood that these schools were not all bad places run by bad people. “I don’t like to be thought of as a villain. I don’t think I was…I think I was a fairly decent person and still am,” says Berit Rasmussen, an 83-year-old Norwegian woman who came to Canada as a missionary in 1949, spent decades at residential schools in Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, and now lives in Lytton. Sitting in her living room knitting a large blanket, Rasmussen fields questions about the schools at Gordon’s Reserve, Pelican Falls and St. George’s where she worked. One of the highlights of her time at these schools came when she tucked an eight-year-old girl named Lilly into bed one night. “She pulled my face to hers and whispered, ‘When I came to school last year I thought you were a white woman.’” The girl was so comfortable with Rasmussen that she gladly mistook her for a Native mother or aunt.
“My experience does not reflect what some Native activists and much of the media are saying,” says Eric Carlson, a status Indian who attended St. Anthony’s Indian Residential School at Onion Lake, Sask., for 12 years. “I don’t recall ever going hungry and the nuns did their best to clothe us and keep us in good health. The academic instruction was such that I had no difficulty keeping up when I moved on to St. Thomas College,” adds Carlson, who eventually went on to teach at a residential school.
The Indian “problem”
One of the first significant dates in the history of residential schools is 1842, the year the Bagot Commission Report advised the government of Upper Canada that Aboriginals ought to acquire “industry and knowledge,” if they were to become valuable members of society. These skills, wrote Charles Bagot, after a two-year review of conditions on reserves, could only be taught through a European-based educational system. The cornerstone for an Indian residential-school system was laid. At that time, the Missionary Society of the Church of England was active in certain parts of Canada, as were other churches with a missionary mandate, including the Methodists and Roman Catholics. At the root of religious outreach was a desire to save souls from hell’s fire while filling up the pews — goals complementary to the policy of assimilation adopted by the federal government at that time.
Assimilation (in the name of amelioration) was taken a large step further in 1847 when Egerton Ryerson, the Methodist head of education in Upper Canada, authored a report on Indian Affairs in which he recommended that “the education of Indians consist not merely of training of the mind but of a weaning from the habits and feelings of their ancestors and the acquirements of the language, arts and customs of civilized life.” Ryerson also suggested that there be a partnership between government and church, and that the schooling be of a religious nature. Government policy toward Natives in Canada was solidified in 1879, when Nicholas Flood David, a journalist and defeated Conservative candidate, was rewarded by then-prime minister John A. Macdonald with a commission to pen a report on industrial training schools in the U.S. The Davin Report, a pivotal piece of prose that recommended the establishment of Indian residential schools similar to the American model, praised the “aggressive civilization policy of the Americans,” deemed successful because it effectively cut children off from the presumed negative influences of their families. “If anything is to be done with the Indian we must catch them very young,” wrote Davin. The difficulty here was that “the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school,” he concluded. Effective socialization of Indian children depended upon what the Anglican bishop of Rupert’s Land (which constituted the better part of what I now central and northwestern Canada) referred to as “continual residence.”
By 1892, the Government of Canada passed an order-in-council regulating the operation of Indian residential schools (the first had already been established in 1863 by the Roman Catholics at St. Mary’s Mission in Mission, B.C.). This was soon followed by a partnership between the federal government and the churches to run the school system. As John Milloy, professor of history and Native studies at Trent University, writes in his book, A National Crime: “The vision of Aboriginal education developed by leaders in the churches and the Department [of Indian Affairs] was erected on the pillars of selfless duty and the self-interested needs of the state.”
Some 30 years later, Indians were still not recognized under the law as people (Natives were not granted the vote in federal elections until 1960) and government thinking had not changed. “I want to get rid of the Indian problem,” said Duncan Campbell Scott, superintendent of Indian affairs, addressing a parliamentary committee in 1920. In that year it became mandatory for every Indian child between the ages of seven and 15 to attend school after it was discovered that of the approximately 18,000 Indian children in Canada of school age only about 12,000 were enrolled in day, residential and boarding schools. “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department,” said Scott.
Education was deemed the most effective way to eliminate “the problem.”
Some students were brought to school by their parents, who obeyed the law of the land and perhaps thought that a formal education was better than none at all. These kids came by canoe or over land. Others tell of being snatched away from their homes by agents who were sent into the wilderness to round up Indian children. Bill Morris recalls a day in 1955 when he was playing in the woods near his home along Bearskin Lake in northern Ontario and heard what sounded like a huge bumblebee. Shortly after the buzzing stopped he saw a crowd gathered at the dock. “I was a nosy kid so I headed through the crow,” says Morris. “The next thing I knew someone grabbed me and threw me into this plane. There were about twelve of us in there when the plane took off.” A few hours later Morris got his first look at a car, a train…and an Indian residential school.
Incubators for disease
At residential school, everything was different for Native children: hair was cut short, uniforms were mandatory, and punishment could be cruel and unusual. “In the vision of residential-school education, discipline was curriculum and punishment was pedagogy,” writes Milloy. “Right from the outset, as the persistent punishment of children for speaking their language signals,…government and church correspondence and reports reveal that there was, as an inherent element of the vision, a ‘savagery’ in the mechanics of civilizing the children.”
Nothing illustrates this better than the diets at some schools. Documents uncovered in the National Archives reveal that malnutrition was a concern at Pelican Falls Indian Residential School, unpasteurized milk was served at the Mohawk Institute, and children at the Brandon Industrial School were sometimes desperately hungry.
“It has been brought to my attention that the children at the Brandon Indian Industrial School are not being fed properly to the extent that they are garbaging around in the barns for food that should only be fed to the barn occupants,” writes J.W. Breakey of Brandon, Man., in a letter dated September 16, 1953, and addressed to Dr. P.E. Moore, director of Indian health services in Ottawa. “This information has been given to me by carpenters who have been working at the school and to say the least they are thoroughly disgusted.”
In some cases, the schools were even incubators for disease. “In the prairies in particular in the interwar years, a ferocious battle was fought against tuberculosis, both in the schools and on the reserves at large,” writes J.R. Miller, a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, in his 1996 examination of Native residential schools, Shingwauk’s Vision.
Another significant problem at residential schools was the quality of the teachers these institutions attracted and were willing to hire. The Anglican-run St. John’s Indian Residential School was the rule rather than the exception when it reported in 1947 that the teachers at both the junior and senior levels had some teaching experience, but “no qualifications” for their jobs. A 1952 federal government survey found that “ten people employed as teachers claimed no formal education beyond Grade 8.” Unqualified teachers were hired because no one else was willing to brave the Canadian wilderness to work for pitifully low wages at cash-strapped schools. Residential school teachers did not, in general, approach normal standards. “In 1948, ‘a [departmental] study conducted of the qualification of the teachers in the residential schools…disclosed that over 40 per cent of the teaching staff had no professional training. Indeed, some had not even graduated from high school.’ This was a long way from the stated official policy of appointing ‘only those with provincial certificates,’” writes Milloy, citing Department of Indian Affairs files.
Some left the church in anger
At their peak in the 1930s, there were 80 residential schools in all provinces and territories except New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. By 1945, there were 9.149 children in residential school, but only slightly more than 100 were at the Grade 8 level, and none were beyond Grade 9. As Miller points out, “widespread criticism and resistance on the part of Indian communities…when coupled with doubt on the part of society in Canada at large, and non-Catholic Christian denominations in particular, about Indian affairs policy” effectively sealed the fate of residential schools. Government committees and lobby groups were failing in their attempts to restore residential schools that were grossly underfunded, poorly staffed and flawed to the point of being dangerous to students’ health.
In 1969, the partnership between government and churches drew to a close, with the government taking over direct control of the 52 remaining schools, with a total enrollment of 7,704 students. (By then, 60 per cent of the Native school population was enrolled in provincially run schools.)
By that time, the Anglican Church was ending its century-long involvement in the operation of Indian residential schools. Charles Hendry released his report, Beyond Traplines (1969), which called for solidarity between Natives and Anglicans based on partnership, equality and mutual respect. Beyond Traplines resulted in a significant shift in the church’s policy and led to the appointment of a council and a co-ordinator of indigenous ministries.
Over the ensuing 14 years, the resident-school system was wound down until, in 1983, the last institution closed its doors. As early as the 1960s, stories of abuse at residential schools were leaking out. Then in the early 1990s, accounts of abuse erupted from Native communities, tearing lives apart. It seemed obvious that the abuse had been a significant impediment to the advancement and even survival of many Native Canadians who, after spending much of their lives away from their families at residential schools, entered adulthood with no sense of how to organize their lives or care for their children, with predictably troubling results for them and their families.
Aware of the “dark, black cloud” that hung over Native communities in Canada, Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, came forward at an AFN gathering in the Yukon in 1992 (at which time he was Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) and spoke about the physical and sexual abuse that many had suffered, himself included. “I was criticized by some at the meeting who thought there were other, more pressing issues,” recalls Fontaine, who was sexually assaulted as a child at the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Residential School in Sagkeeng, Man. Undaunted by this initial rejection, Fontaine took his message to a gathering of about 200 journalists in Toronto a few weeks later. The news hit the media like a hammer on a drum, and his message resonated almost immediately with people throughout Native communities who were deeply moved, to the point of activism. All of a sudden, people who had hidden the abuse in their pasts from friends and family, started coming forward, talking about their pain, searching for healing and demanding justice.
For his part, Fontaine says, “I never appreciated the impact this disclosure would have on me personally.” Seated in an Ottawa restaurant, surrounded by his small but ever-present retinue, he will not discuss the details of his residential-school experience. “Not names. Not intimate details.” He has never pursued legal action (his abuser is deceased). When asked how he got through the early days after his disclosure, Fontaine simply says, “I was very busy then.” At this point, there is a pause in the conversation as the Grand Chief gathers his thoughts and emotions before breaking the silence: “Since I first spoke up, I’ve been in counseling. The motivation, the reason behind it all…I haven’t dealt with all the issues. I still have a hell of a lot of work to do.” Arguably, his best work was helping to heave open the floodgates of secrecy that would allow hundreds of people to surge forward with stories of abuse — stories that would eventually cause the federal government and the four churches involved to issue public apologies for their roles in the abuse of their young Native charges.
In the case of the Anglican Church of Canada, Primate Michael Peers took the microphone at the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ont., in August of 1993 and said: “I accept and confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools…I am sorry more than I can say…that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family…tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity…that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally. On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology…” This apology was accepted graciously by many Aboriginal Anglicans. Others have left the church in anger. As for many of those who were wronged in the worst way while young and vulnerable, a generalized “sorry” is not enough. Some want the chance to face the individuals who abused them and hear them say they are sorry and ask forgiveness. Others want to watch as the government and churches take their legal and financial lumps. And all Natives seem to want Canadians to recognize the prejudicial treatment and malfeasance to which so many of their people were subjected at residential schools, and to acknowledge the lingering effects.
But there are people who defend the political principle of residential schooling. “Civilization was the avowed policy of residential schooling, and it worked,” says Tom Flanagan, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. “What were we going to do, leave Indians uncivilized in a civilized society?”
As for court battles and claims of abuse, Flanagan told Western Report magazine that residential schools have been stigmatized by native-rights advocates who ransacked the historical record for horror stories that exaggerated the negative and ignored the successes. “The aboriginal movement depends on the cultivation of grievances,” he said, referring to recent legal decisions as “an expensive and mistaken orgy of guilt” on the part of non-Natives.
Too much for some to bear
Ben Pratt pursued justice through the legal system, less out of malevolence than because he saw no other logical route. Eventually, he won a settlement as part of a civil suit, which came in the wake of a criminal conviction filed against one of his abusers. He is now in the midst of a second case against another alleged assailant.
When pressed about his legal battles, Pratt, who regularly sees a clinical psychologist, admits that dealing with lawyers and judges might not always be in his best interest, given that healing is what he craves, and this will not likely come via the adversarial court system. That said, the legal route is a path he is entitled to take. “I suppose I don’t have anything else to do,” says the jack-of-all-trades, who concentrates on plumbing and carpentry work. “It’s not like the money will make me happy or make me feel better, but I might as well get something for what those bastards did to me,” Pratt adds, saying he spent all the money he received after the first trial (as part of the settlement he cannot disclose the amount, although published reports put it at $46,000). He paid off his debt at the general store, sank thousands into a failed store of his own, bought Christmas presents, and spent almost $5,000 on new kitchen cupboards. Pratt suspects he will spend as freely the second time around if he wins this current case.
As with the abusive act itself, there is a certain degree of shame attached to cash settlements awarded in such cases. “Around here it’s called ‘arse money.’ It’s supposed to be dirty,” says Pratt, who believes that such taunts often come from people who have suffered abuse themselves and are simply hiding behind catcalls rather than face their own demons. “I laughed and made fun of others, until it got to my door,” admits the man whose residential-school experience came back to haunt him not as a nocturnal image that startled him from his sleep, but in the form of people on the reserve going door-to-door asking who had been abused at Gordon’s. When faced with the question, Pratt made the toughest decision of his life, and told his well-kept secret. By his own estimation, he is feeling more empowered and in control — even if his emotions still run high on occasion.
But for every Ben Pratt, there is a man or woman who will not, or cannot, step forward and revisit the horror they endured as children. Some simply choose to remain silent, while others put guns to their heads or ropes around their necks. Nothing illustrates the despair some former residential-school students feel like the phone call Pratt received awhile back. It was a Tuesday night, and his cousin, a grown man and fellow resident of Gordon’s, was on the other end of the line, crying. Between sobs, he told of his abusive past and the taunts and criticism from those who claimed to be friends, but who now simply made fun of him. It was all too much to bear, he said. Pratt tried to reassure him that things would get better. You must be strong and not walk away from this fight, Pratt said. His cousin said he would try, then hung up. But he couldn’t do what Pratt begged of him. Instead, he walked down to a nearby set of train tracks. Just before a locomotive whipped by, he stepped on to the tracks — to his death, his Creator, and the possibility of peace.
When Pratt finishes telling this story his eyes overflow with tears, and his ballcap is a crinkled mass of black cotton. “I wish I could write,” he says, wiping his eyes. I attempt to be encouraging and supportive, assuring him that he can write down his story if he simply takes the time to do so. Pratt looks at me. “I am illiterate,” says the graduate of Grade 6 at residential school. Pratt doesn’t give me a chance to apologize before he continues. “If I could write, I would tell everyone what happened to me. I have even come up with a name for my story. I’d call it Number 38 Speaking Out.”
Not everyone is so willing to talk. “If you come onto my reserve, I’ll get you.” These are some of the last words I hear before Chief Janet Webster of the Lytton Indian Band slams down the phone, bringing our brief conversation to an abrupt end. I had called Webster because I wanted to let her know I would be visiting British Columbia and was hoping to speak with residential-school survivors, some of whom are members of her band. Webster was not happy to hear from me, because other reporters had visited the reserve and left behind a powerful emotional fallout that has, she says, resulted in suicide.
Still, I was committed to visiting Lytton because it was the site of St. George’s Indian Residential School, which figured prominently in the case of Mowatt v. Clarke, the first civil case involving the Anglican Church to come to trial. In this instance, the church and the federal government admitted fault before the civil trial began and agreed to pay a settlement fee; the purpose of the trial was to determine to what degree each defendant organization — the church and Ottawa — were liable for the abuse that Derek Clarke had heaped upon his pre-pubescent victim.
In Mowatt v. Clarke the judge found the Diocese of Cariboo, the church’s national General Synod and the federal government liable for the assaults that dormitory supervisor Clarke committed against Floyd Mowatt Sr. at St. George’s Indian Residential School between 1970 and 1973, beginning when Mowatt was nine years old. In her August 30, 1999 decision Justice Janice Dillon concluded that, “All defendants have been found liable in either assault, vicarious liability or negligence” and assigned a 60-per cent share of liability jointly to the General Synod and the Diocese of Cariboo, and a 40-per cent liability to the Government of Canada. (Clarke had already pleaded guilty to sexual assault in a previous criminal trial and been sentenced to prison.)
The Mowatt decision came in the wake of a case involving the United Church of Canada and a residential school at Port Alberni, B.C., which had a similar outcome. Together, these two cases set a costly precedent for institutional defendants in residential-school cases; the bells still ring atop churches and the Peace Tower, but the financial death knell is the loudest sound being heard in many Canadian cities, including Ottawa. There are almost 6,000 individual claims against the federal government and four churches, not including the more than 1,000 claimants taking part in four class-action suits currently underway in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia. At the heart of most residential-school cases is the issue of responsibility. As Justice Dillon asked on the first of her 106-page decisions: “Was anybody on watch? Who?”
As institutions, the Anglican Church and the federal government certainly weren’t watching very closely when they hired Derek Clarke and gave him the opportunity to assault many children over many years. It is hard to believe that no one was aware of what this sexual predator was doing when he lined children up before bedtime and inspected every inch of their bodies, including their penises, under the guise of making sure the boys were clean. The principal at the school, the late Tony Harding, for one, may have known what Clarke was doing. Harding was acquitted of assault charges before his death, but despite the fact that he couldn’t defend himself, Justice Dillon confidently wrote that, “Harding also sexually abused students at St. George’s…[and] if Harding did not know of Clarke’s behaviour then he certainly ought to have known or he was willfully blind to it.” Over the eight years during which Clarke worked at the school, his sexual misconduct occurred with “incredible frequency…twice or three times a week, once a day, often. It also occurred during the summer if the boy remained behind. It was part of life there; it was accepted because Clarke was the supervisor,” said Justice Dillon.
Fred Sampson says he was preyed upon by Clarke (but has not sued) and agrees that school breaks were the worst times for assault victims. “For kids left there during the summer, it was total abandonment. The predator looked for the weakest ones,” he says, referring to children who were experiencing a sense of loss and separation from their families. “He’d bribe us with candy and trips to Vancouver and Stanley Park.”
Eight victims killed themselves
I visited Sampson on the Siska Indian Band Reserve five kilometers south of Lytton. It’s here on a reserve that has an estimated 90 per cent unemployment rate that the 42-year-old artist coaxes beautiful images from soapstone and works as a band councillor. Sampson tells stories through his carving. He also tells a gruesome tale of being abused at St. George’s as a child, then wandering western Canada as a younger man, despairing that the nightmares of his residential-school experiences would ever cease, before eventually considering suicide.
“I looked down the barrel of my own shotgun,” says Sampson, recalling the depths to which he sunk as a 28-year-old hard drinker and drug abuser. “The gun was loaded, with the hammer back and the barrel underneath my chin. All that was needed was two or three more ounces of pressure on the trigger and it was all over.” Sampson’s only explanation for not killing himself is that he wanted to give his art one more try. “My sense of humour has allowed me to survive — I would rather laugh than cry — but it’s my art that has really saved me.” A husband and father, Sampson supports his family in part by selling his carvings, some of which command thousands of dollars, while other pieces grace museums and galleries.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have an artistic muse whose call drowns out the humiliation of having been assaulted and made to feel worthless, ashamed and even guilty. The worst victims in Lytton, says Sampson, were those grown men who were suddenly subpoenaed as witnesses in the Mowatt case. “When they got handed a piece of paper they knew their secret was out. They thought, ‘Everybody’s gonna know that I let this guy do it to me for candy,’” Sampson says. “Handing out those papers was one of the biggest mistakes the government ever made. Eight guys killed themselves that summer. There was Anthony, John, Michael, Nelson, Pete, Carl…they were some of the toughest guys in town,” he continues. Some of the deaths were classed as “accidental,” but Sampson doesn’t agree. “The other residential school victims know what killed them.”
Victims of abuse are not restricted to those who were attacked; family members, friends and sometimes even entire communities are suffering as a result of what went on at residential schools.
Spousal abuse is one extremely common repercussion. “There is enormous abuse of women and girls,” says Mary Wells, a Toronto-based social worker and expert on sexual abuse. Regardless of what the figure is, one fact is known, Wells says. “Basic parenting skills were lost as a result of residential schools, which left behind an enormous residue of anger and self-hatred.”
Twenty other victims came forward
Where and when will the cycle of crime and punishment end? “Some want an eye for an eye, others just want to forget,” says Garnet Angeconeb, and Ojibway from Sioux Lookout and member of the Ottawa-based Aboriginal Healing Foundation, that is charged with dispensing $350 million that accompanied the federal government’s apology to Natives.
“Those who suffered sexual abuse are the ones who are still drinking, if they haven’t already fallen through the cracks. The anger is so varied. Everyone has their own approach to dealing with this horrible legacy,” he adds. Angeconeb was sexually assaulted at Pelican Lake Indian Residential School between 1966 and 1969, starting when he was 11 years old. “I just wanted to kill the bastard who did this to me,” he says between sips of coffee at the Thunder Bay airport. The 44-year-old explains that Phil Fontaine’s words helped him face his abusive past, but the precise moment he decided to step forward came one summer day when he opened the Toronto Star and read an article about young parishioners being abused. “I was sitting in a cottage outside Ottawa when I read this story and knew right away that it was him. I said ‘Holy sh--, he’s still at it.”
For Angeconeb and his family, it was the start of a four-year process involving police statements, painfully slow legal judgments and a constant struggle to keep their lives intact. Angeconeb began by phoning his abused, Leonard Hands (who, by then, was working in Kingston, Ont., as an Anglican priest), and suggested they enter a mediation process that would allow both of them to experience much-needed healing. “I was saying, ‘Hey guy, you got a problem, deal with it,’” says Angeconeb. “He advised me to talk to his lawyer and then hung up. So I called him right back to tell him he’d be hearing from me, then slammed down the phone.” The battle lines were drawn. Angeconeb eventually came face-to-face with Hands in April of 1992. At that meeting, Hands brought his bishop and flatly denied all charges, then asked Angeconeb why he was “blackmailing” him and his family. “It was awful,” recalls Angeconeb. “I couldn’t believe that a man of the cloth would lie before his colleague.”
The confrontation proved to be little more than an exercise in frustration, one made doubly tense because Hands and his wife had, by this time, adopted two Native children. “But,” says Angeconeb, “he dug his own grave that day when he said to me, ‘Garnet, I would never have abused a kid as intelligent as you.’” A poor choice of words perhaps, but still a long way from a criminal conviction that would put Hands in jail. First came the lengthy investigation that saw the Ontario Provincial Police gather statements from people claiming to have been sexually abused by Hands — 20 came forward, and Angeconeb was not the first. That dreadful honour went to Brian Brisket, a fellow Native who would become a close friend of Angconeb’s as a result of their shared ordeal.
As the legal process dragged on, Angeconeb sank in to despair in October of 1995, on a day when a heavy snowstorm blew through northern Ontario. “It was a horrible day. It was really bad,” recalls Angeconeb. He and his wife were on the verge of a separation. Neither spouse could handle the stress of pursuing the lawsuit and the terrible memories and anger it dredged up in Angeconeb. “I finally said goodbye and walked out,” recalls Angeconeb. “I was leaving home. I had had enough and left.” He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he got in his car and started to drive anyway. Fate stopped him in his tracks, exactly 56 kilometres outside his hometown of Sioux Lookout. “I came across a car accident. A head-on collision with three fatalities. One of them was a very good friend of mine,” says Angeconeb. “It was Brian. He was lying on the road…” The memory of that scene swallows Angeconeb in grief and he quietly weeps. After a few moments, he continues in a shaky voice: “I turned around and went home. But that was a real setback for me, because Brian never got to see the end of the legal process that he started.”
Brisket paid the ultimate price, while Angeconeb and the others spent four years seeking justice, only to hear a judge sentence Hands to the same number of years in Manitoba’s Stoney Mountain penitentiary. In light of such sentences, it’s little wonder that many victims who’ve gone the legal route feel cheated — even after they win in court. It’s especially tough for Natives, whose traditions dictate that justice be meted out in the form of shame rather than physical punishment or incarceration, and who are often uncomfortable seeking retribution within a European-based justice system. “There ain’t a hell of a lot that’s right with litigation,” says Dr. Maggie Hodgson, head of the Assembly of First Nations’ alternative dispute resolution team. “At no place does it spell humanity.”
For those who were physically victimized, only a small degree of satisfaction comes from squaring off against an abuser — something few plaintiffs get to do anyway, given that defendants are usually represented by legal counsel and not required to appear in court. “Right now there’s only one place to resolve these issues, and that’s in court,” says Russell Raikes, a lawyer with Cohen Highley Vogel & Dawson in London, Ont. “Until there’s another option, or they invent a better mousetrap, that’s the way to go,” adds the man whose client list includes hundreds of claimants in cases involving the Mohawk Institute Residential School, an Anglican-run institution that operated in Brantford, Ont. In this class-action suit, Raikes’s clients (including the descendants of residential-school attendees) are suing for about $2.4 billion, for breach of fiduciary duty, assault, battery, breach of treaty rights, loss of care, guidance and companionship. So great is the total number of lawsuits and dollars involved, that some 40 lawyers from B.C. to Nova Scotia who represent plaintiffs in residential-school cases have banded together to form the Canadian Residential School Litigation Council Group. Its mandate is to share ideas and possible strategies for successfully taking churches and the government to court.
“We are up against a well-organized, seemingly limitless-resourced opponent,” says Raikes, who helped found the by-invitation-only group that convenes mostly over the phone. “We want to keep each other informed, support one another, and have the ability to bounce views off each other.” One lawyer who is not a member of this group is Tony Merchant, a Regina-based lawyer with approximately 3,000 residential-school clients. The Merchant Law Group has made very few friends of late, having been accused of inappropriately soliciting clients by going onto reserves. It is an accusation Merchant himself flatly denies, insisting that whenever anyone from his firm has gone to a reserve, it has been in response to an invitation from band leaders. Merchant says he abhors the recent delays in residential-school cases that are coming as a result of “cross-claiming” tactics adopted by the government.
“There’s a number of reasons for delay,” Merchant recently told the Anglican Journal. “One, we’ve had 16 people die. They get nothing. Two, the standard insurance-company reason for delay is that people then get sick of it and you can get them to settle for less money. You just wear them out…The next financial is, ‘Why pay now when we can pay in a year?” or ‘Why pay now when we can pay in three years?’”
Besides lawsuits, one of the way government, churches and Natives are looking at resolving the legacy of residential schools is through alternative dispute resolution. Although it is not necessarily cheaper than the courts, ADP provides a less adversarial, less hostile approach to resolving differences. “There has been a general lack of knowledge about residential schools and the harm they did, [and] there’s a real lack of certainty about the cost of resolving these cases and what it means for the Canadian taxpayer,” says George Thompson, a lawyer, former deputy minister of Justice and, until very recently, the Justice Department’s point man on alternative dispute resolution. “There is a real shared sense that ADR is a better way to go,” says Thompson.
Dispute resolution or mediation is simply assisted negotiation involving a neutral person who facilitates discussions between parties and their representatives. ADR is seen by many as the best chance for healthy resolutions because it allows for two-way communication, the possibility of mutual understanding, and the opportunity for people to say they are sorry and for others to hear these apologies. “The single most important thing about mediation is the ability for parties to meaningfully participate in the process,” says Leslie Macleod, a Toronto-based specialist in conflict resolution. “It gives people the opportunity to truly hear and understand each other.”
Less a cure than a treatment
In a September 1999 statement on residential schools, the Anglican Church’s general secretary, Archdeacon Jim Boyles, said: “Individual ADR settlements are intended to reflect the amount that would have been given by a court and the ADR process itself has a significant element of cost. As a result, we think ADR processes are not likely to be less expensive than litigation. The primary reason for entering ADR, we believe, is that it is less traumatic for the victim, and that it may offer some hope of restorative justice.”
Macleod challenges the notion that ADR is as expensive as litigation, but adds that in situations concerning former residential-school students, ADR does “have the potential to do something meaningful in terms of addressing cultural differences.” For this reason, the federal government, in association with churches, has identified 12 projects in which ADR is being pursued, according to the Justice Department. “We started down this road when we realized that litigation risked overrunning us,” says Thompson of the ADR initiative that was launched in February of 1998. He estimates that ADR will address the concerns and claims of about 700 of the thousands of plaintiffs who have made claims against the government, but is quick to caution that ADR only works in certain situations. “If someone is only interested in compensation, then let’s go through the legal system,” Thompson says. “But if you’re open to more than that — things like healing, the innovative use of resources, and benefits to a community — then the ADR process might be for you.” ADR is less a cure than a treatment. “We have reached a number of settlements,” says the AFN’s Hodgson, “but I don’t think that even settlements by themselves are enough. Closure is what’s needed.”
For some, it comes when the prison door slams shut on the abuser; for others, it comes when their car skids off the highway at 100 km an hour or a train speeds past or the shotgun is laid down. For still others, the residential-school experience is a burden they will bear for the rest of their lives. “When I think of the things that went on there, it brings tears of sadness [knowing] that I didn’t do more,” says Ed Bitternose, who worked at the Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan when he was a teenager. “As far back as 1970, I thought something was wrong,” Bitternose explains, slouching into his chair as he speaks. At the time, the head administrator at the school, located some 150 km north of Regina, was William Starr, the man convicted of assaulting Ben Pratt and 10 others. “I’d send the kids to bed and come back at 10:30 or 11 that night and they would be up again,” says Bitternose, a Native who now runs the reserve’s Brighter Futures outreach program. “[Starr] was taking the kids out of my responsibility, but I couldn’t say that he was doing anything wrong.” People like Bitternose were youngsters themselves at the time abuses took place and were simply too scared or confused to step forward and say what they heard, saw or suspected.
Some teachers and workers went to residential schools with sinister motives and almost no fear of reprimand. “Missionary bodies all too often were unwilling or unable to weed out — and keep out— staff who were proven to be guilty of misconduct,” writes Miller in Shingwauk’s Vision. There were even cases of people later convicted of sexual assault being kept on staff well after the time when their abusing actions were first suspected. Derek Clarke, who abused children at the St. George’s School in Lytton, was eventually dismissed, but not before he was given a written recommendation in 1973 by then-principal Tony Harding, that helped secure Clarke a job at another residential school.
Family relationships were lost
Alfred Scow is a retired provincial court judge and member of the Kwakwara’wakw nation who attended the Anglican-run school at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. His first experience at Indian residential school was downright idyllic. “I was not taken away to school kicking and screaming. My parents wanted me to have an education, and the only available, affordable school was the Indian residential school,” says Scow, who was nine when he started classes in 1936. “They voluntarily enrolled me and my sister Joyce at Alert Bay.”
Scow’s first impression of a place where picnics and other leisurely outdoor activities were the norm was shattered by about the second week. That was when the bulk of the children arrived and the administration got strict — very strict. “I thought I had landed in a great place, but then September rolled around and the school filled up with 200 [other] Indian students. Then it was a totally new regime. We lined up for everything — for the staff to tell us something, for church, for bedtime. Everything was different: the food, the language, the dress. Family relationships disappeared. I saw Joyce mostly at mealtimes on the girls’ side of the dining room.”
The students at St. Michael’s attended school for a half day and did farm chores the other half. Scow’s first task was picking up leaves from the sports field, which has maple trees nearby. He recalls that he wore a uniform that included short pants, and that when he slacked off the job, he felt a “terrible stinging pain” across his calves. “The vice principal struck me with a big chain right across the calves and told me, ‘If you don’t hurry up you’ll get some more.’ You learned pretty fast that you did what you were told.”
This was a completely different life than the one Scow had been accustomed to as a boy in the tiny community of Gwayasdums at Gilford Island, some 200 miles up the coast from Vancouver. “There was almost total freedom,” he recalls. “I would play in the woods or in my canoe. I remember spearing crabs and fish from a canoe that I made.” Discipline there came in the form of being made to feel shame. Scow felt this when he returned from a childhood fishing expedition in nearby waters. He had killed more than the family could eat and was told that he was wrong to take so many fish from the river. Residential school was a far cry from this kind of education, so it was not surprising that Scow ran away from the school on one occasion. His mother’s response upon seeing her son appear on the doorstep was to feed him and take him back to school.
“The school was not a bed of pain,” says Scow.
“I felt it was healthy. In retrospect, my main complaint was the subliminal message that our culture was not as good as the white culture.” The lawyer, former judge and son of a chief reminds his interviewer that the Indian Act at that time did not even recognize Natives as people, and prohibited traditional Native religious and cultural ceremonies. “Both my grandparents went to jail for holding potlatches,” adds Scow proudly.
In their paper, The Promise and Pitfalls of Apology, to be published in the Journal of Social Philosophy, Canadian academic Trudy Govier, a professor at the University of Calgary, and Wilhelm Verwoerd, a professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, examine exactly how significant apology really is in human lives. “We suggest that it is because saying ‘I am sorry’ or ‘I apologize’…primarily implies acknowledgement of the human dignity and oral worth of the victim,” the authors write. “An effective apology provides the basis for an emotional shift towards forgiveness. The recognition of painful feelings such as resentment is very closely linked to the recovery of self-respect. They say also that an apology can often be more important “than even rather generous financial compensation,” provided contrition is part of the apology and there is a commitment to practical amends.
According to Rupert Ross, author and assistant Crown attorney for the District of Kenora, practical amends require an appreciation, if not an understanding of the victims and their culture. “Until we realize that Native people have a highly developed, formal, but radically different set of cultural imperatives, we are likely to continue misinterpreting their acts, misperceiving the real problems they face and imposing, through government policies, potentially harmful “remedies,” writes Ross, in his 1992 book, Dancing With a Ghost.
Mindful of the vast differences between Native and non-Native cultures, various programs and funds have been established and put under the guidance of Native administrators. The Anglican Church has the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Residential Schools Healing Fund, which has so far earmarked more than $500,000 for expenses incurred by Native-run programs, ranging from establishing conferences, to printing hymn books in various Native dialects, to counseling for those suffering from the effects of their traumatic residential-school experiences.
Frustration level peaked
Another prime example of Natives taking financial matters into their own hands comes in the form of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a $350-million pool of cash the federal government established in 1998, following its apology to the Aboriginal people of Canada. The fund is to be used over 10 years to meet the needs of “Aboriginal people affected by the legacy of sexual and physical abuse in residential schools, including intergenerational impacts.” Specifically, the goals of the foundation are the prevention of future abuse, healing between those who cause and those who suffered abuse, and healing between Aboriginals and other Canadians. A typical foundation meeting saw 70 or so people gathered in the ballroom of a Thunder Bay, Ont., hotel last October. The day-long session was opened by an energetic 83-year-old elder named Red Sky, who attended Cecilia Jeffrey residential school in Kenora, Ont., in the 1920s.
After the opening, excitement quickly gave way to a palpable tension as people stood and addressed questions toward the dais and the foundation directors at the front of the ballroom. Most people wanted to know exactly how the foundation’s 15 directors select those applications that receive funds, and why many of heir own applications had been rejected. Board members repeatedly explained that they are duty-bound to follow the rules set out in a funding agreement with the federal government. No one questioned the fairness of the process, but many in attendance were unhappy that money could not be extended to programs designed to address cultural abuse; only physical- and sexual-abuse programs qualify. Toward the end of a long day, the frustration level peaked when a Native woman stood and took issue with the layout of the room. She didn’t like the idea of a raised stage. “It’s very intimidating,” she said. “This really should have been done in a circle.” A few minutes later, attendees and directors alike were exhausted and the meeting mercifully ended — in a circle.
Anger at a Healing Foundation meeting is just the tip of an emotional iceberg that has been floating ominously through Native affairs in Canada for decades. In 1996, the Royal Commission warned: “The relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada has long been troubled and recently has shown signs of slipping into more serious trouble.” Violence, as the commissioners and others like Willie Hodgson have warned, is a real possibility.
The sorry legacy of Indian residential schooling is readily apparent at St. George’s chapel just outside Lytton. The century-old structure has seen better days. Built in 1901, a stone’s throw from the Fraser River, and in the shadow of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains, it was once the spiritual heart of this hamlet in the B.C. interior. Now, it is just a reminder of the sad residential-school era that has left many in this small community struggling to come to grips with harrowing childhood experiences. Beyond the chapel’s wood-and-stone exterior are 30 dusty pews that make a jumbled procession toward a decrepit altar. Worn hymnals with broken spines lie scattered about the floor On the back wall an intruder has painted a large A with a circle around it, making the symbol for anarchy the most outstanding feature in this abandoned house of God. There is talk among Native elders of restoring the old Anglican chapel and using it for Bible classes and other gatherings. But that would take considerable money, and money is one thing neither Natives nor the Anglican Diocese of Cariboo have much of these days. The diocese is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy as a result of the Mowatt case and eight similar lawsuits that have been filed by former students at St. George’s.
While lawsuits have raised the awareness of some and the ire of others, many people see them as forums for restorative justice. The next opportunity for the scales to balance might come if the children of students from the Mohawk residential school in Brantford, Ont., have their day in court, as part of a class-action lawsuit that makes claims of more than $2 billion against the Attorney General of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Diocese of Huron.
The question now becomes: Who stands to lose and who stands to gain when the battle lines over Indian residential schools are drawn in courts and in mediation rooms across the country? Monetarily speaking, the losers may well be the church and the federal government, while the winners may be Natives and their lawyers. There is, however, another way of looking at cases such as Mohawk and the ADR tests currently under way. It’s the view that first takes into account the individuals involved, rather than simply the institutions.
The Anglican Church is led by people like Archdeacon Jim Boyles and Bishop Duncan Wallace of Regina and the many other men and women who serve as congregants and ministers (including four Canadian bishops from indigenous communities — two Inuit and two Cree — and 130 Aboriginal priests). “On our future horizon lies a renewed partnership with our indigenous people,” says Boyles. “If we lower our eyes from the horizon, a generation will pass before people from our indigenous communities will again want to exercise leadership in our church because of public perceptions about us.”
For his part, Wallace knows very well the pending lawsuits and the dire straits the Anglican Church is in, but insists the church will endure. “All we need is a book, a bottle of wine and some bread and we’re in business,” he says.
As for Natives, they are a diverse group that, despite success in many arenas, is still struggling to find its rightful place in the fabric of an imperfect but still great nation. As Native elders warn, no one can, or should try to live up to the image of the proud Indian imprinted on a nickel or emblazoned atop a corporate logo — let alone members of a minority group that has almost been wiped out by the very people who mint the coins and run the companies that put noble savages on loft perches.
“Motivating youth to complete their education is of great importance to the economic future of Aboriginal communities,” reads the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. “Youth need a strong foundation in their traditions and proficiency in the skills valued by contemporary society. Those who master these skills and contribute to their communities and nations deserve to be celebrated as the modern equivalents of the great hunters and leaders of the past.”
Wise men and women know what will be needed to bridge the chasm that exists between Native and non-Native societies in Canada. The first step is healing, which will only emerge when apologies have been given and accepted. When this has been accomplished, the next generation of Natives will be free to move beyond the injustices of the past and walk with dignity and strength in both worlds.Back to Top
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