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Fort Providence residential school, children and sta (Sacred Heart Parish/NWT Archiv)
Fort Providence residential school, children and sta (Sacred Heart Parish/NWT Archiv)

ABORIGINAL AFFAIRS

Tab for residential school abuses likely to top $4-billion Add to ...

The amount that the federal government will have to pay to First Nations, Inuit and Métis people who were abused at church-run residential schools is expected to swell to over $4-billion.

New statistics posted on the website of the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat show the number of former residents of the schools who have applied for compensation after alleging serious sexual, physical or emotional harm has climbed to 37,716, more than three times the original estimates.

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The total of the payments was initially forecast to be $960-million, based on an expected 12,500 claimants. But last July, when that projection was boosted to 30,000 and when the average payouts were running higher than estimated, government officials said they expected the compensation to top $3.5-billion.

Now, even that estimate has proved to be too low after an additional rush of thousands of applications before the deadline in September of last year.

Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is creating a historical record of the experiences inside the church-run residential schools, said he is not startled to learn that the number of claims is so high.

“Virtually every survivor who has spoken to us has talked about an injury of some kind that they sustained at the schools,” Judge Sinclair said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “So it probably should not have caught anybody by surprise that it would be that significant.”

Another fund, which provides compensation to the estimated 80,000 former students at the schools regardless of whether they were abused or not, had approved an additional $1.62-billion in payments by the end of last year.

Meanwhile, Judge Sinclair said he is concerned that documents related to the schools that are buried in the federal archives have not started to arrive at commission offices even though an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled nearly three months ago the government is obligated to hand them over.

The Department of Aboriginal Affairs has given about a million records to the commission and has promised hundreds of thousands more. But 23 other departments have yet to follow suit. It is estimated that the school-related documents stored in the archives occupy 6.5 kilometres of shelf space and finding them could cost as much as $100-million.

Documents obtained by Ottawa-based researcher Ken Rubin under access to information legislation estimate that the cost of digitizing the material alone could approach $40-million.

“We respect the fact that it’s really a huge task,” said Judge Sinclair.

“But the reality is that we haven’t seen any additional documents,” he said, “which really tells us that the government wasn’t ready, that it had done no preparation whatsoever. And that concerns us because that means now they are almost starting from scratch. And it means that documents are not going to flow very quickly once they do start flowing.”

The mandate of the commission, which must review the documents and decide which are relevant, ends next year and time is running short, said Judge Sinclair, who pointed out that the government has been aware of its obligations since it reached an agreement with school survivors in 2005.

“It’s important that we have an opportunity to do that analysis before the commission ends,” he said. If the mandate expires before all of the documents have been processed, the commission may have to ask a court how to proceed.

Alvin Fiddler, the deputy chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario, said Monday that failure to produce the records would cast doubt on the historic apology for the residential school system that Prime Minister Stephen Harper made in 2008 on behalf of Canadians. “It goes back to the question of how sincere was he and how sincere was the apology,” Mr. Fiddler said.

Judge Sinclair said it is clear that Mr. Harper understands the urgency of the documents situation because his office has asked the Aboriginal Affairs Department to co-ordinate a response.

But the papers obtained by Mr. Rubin suggest that, as recently as last fall, other departments including Library and Archives Canada were taking the matter in stride.

In a memo dated Sept. 5, Steve Accette, the liaison between the Aboriginal Affairs Department and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wrote that there was “no sense of urgency” on the part of Library and Archives Canada and “no special consideration given to the fact that this exercise is the result of a court order and is mandatory.”

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