This weekend, Canada announced it has reached a $2.8 billion CDN (~$2 b USD) settlement with 325 First Nations in a class action lawsuit over damages to language, culture and community from residential schools and associated policies. The money will go to an independently managed 20 year trust fund – more details are in the CBC article in the link. But how much will this float up boats in Indigenous Canada?

In the deal, “the band class members agreed to ‘fully, finally and forever’ release the Crown from claims that could conceivably arise from the collective harms residential schools inflicted on First Nations, as alleged in a previous court filing. On the other hand, the agreement does “not cover or include any claims that may arise over children who died or disappeared while being forced to attend residential school.” There is still much to come for reconciliation.

This is of course a large sum of money, and it should be able to start to make a difference. However if one compares it to the current endowment of Hawaii’s Kamehameha schools, one sees how far there still is to go. The endowment was valued at $15.1 billion (USD) at the beginning of December, 2022.

Kamehameha Schools were endowed with 375,000 acres of land through Ke Ali’i Bernice Pauahi Bishop’s will in 1884, a decade before the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown and annexed to the US as a territory. The perpetual endowment was made “with the intent of improving the capability and well-being of Native Hawaiian children through education,” a very similar set of goals to the new Canadian fund.

The Hawaiian population had been significantly reduced by disease starting with the arrival of Europeans at the end of the 18th Century. The concentration of land into Bishop’s hands evolved over the 19th Century as the newly formed Kingdom transitioned to a Constitutional Monarchy and land tenure and ownership became privatized, with most of it retained by the king and a small elite, and formalized, through e.g. the Māhele Book. With the reduced population and logistical difficulties, many of the surviving native Hawaiians missed opportunities to acquire land deeds, and today there is still a high concentration of land ownership in Hawaii, much of it in non-native hands.

Even the $15 billion endowment can easily be considered insufficient in this light. And while the social and human tolls to these Indigenous communities in the last 200 years is paramount, the connections between the land, its peoples, and nature’s contributions to their well-being add directly to the bill. Cash alone cannot repair the losses to these socio-ecological systems; amongst other investments, ways of thinking and knowing and decision-making frameworks and authority to implement them, have all got to broaden to build back better. I look forward to hearing how the First Nations use their new cash flow to do just that.