Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says she is taking a close look at Ottawa's decision to exclude a single province, Newfoundland and Labrador, from an otherwise national apology and financial settlement for former residential-school students.
For eight years, former students from Newfoundland and Labrador have fought the Canadian government in a class-action lawsuit. Nearly 30 former students, some in their 70s, have testified, at times tearfully. They are the only ones in Canada who have had to make their case in court that they suffered abuses in the schools.
The case is an early test of the Liberal government's commitment to a new relationship with indigenous Canadians. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Wilson-Raybould spoke about the priority she puts on reviewing that long-running battle, and about her hopes for a new start between Ottawa and indigenous peoples.
"Irrespective of what political party has been in power, there has been an incredibly challenging relationship between indigenous peoples and the Canadian government over time," she said, and paraphrased Nelson Mandela on reconciliation: "Laws need to be changed and policies need to be rewritten."
The exclusion of an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 former students from Newfoundland and Labrador dates from settlement talks launched by the Liberal government of Paul Martin in 2005, aimed at ending an onslaught of class-action and individual lawsuits across the country. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper finalized a settlement in 2007, apologized in 2008 and began to pay out an estimated $4-billion to $5-billion in compensation.
The federal government argues that Canada had no direct role in running or overseeing the Newfoundland and Labrador schools. Lawyers for the former students estimate that settling the Newfoundland and Labrador case would cost an additional $100-million.
"This is part of my mandate as justice minister," Ms. Wilson-Raybould said of the case. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly released the "mandate letters" he gave to each cabinet minister on Friday. Ms. Wilson-Raybould's letter obliges her to review government legal strategy, with an eye to "early decisions to end appeals or positions that are not consistent with our commitments, the Charter or our values."
The Trudeau government has already ended a four-year fight for a ban on the face veil or niqab during the oath-taking in citizenship ceremonies, and withdrawn from legal battles over the stripping of citizenship from convicted terrorists. It has also said it will establish an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women this summer. But those were straightforward matters of keeping direct campaign promises and marking the Liberal government as different from the previous Conservative one.
Settling the lawsuit would mean breaking with a long-standing position put in place by a Liberal government, and questioning the usefulness of engaging in drawn-out legal battles with indigenous communities.
"Certainly our relationship with indigenous peoples is of paramount importance to our Prime Minister and our government," Ms. Wilson-Raybould said. "That relationship must be approached with respect. That's my commitment in this case."
She added that while she would not commit to settling with the former students, "I do want to say this is something I definitely will be looking into."
Kirk Baert, a lawyer who represents the former students, said he is encouraged by Ms. Wilson-Raybould's words, but wants to see action. "Many of the survivors have died and more will die before it is over. Canada has continued to drag this matter out." The federal government asked for another delay on Tuesday to respond to an expert witness it has known about since July, he said.
Josie Penny, 73, of Dunnville, Ont., is one of roughly 30 former students who have testified in the class-action lawsuit, and she wrote a 2011 memoir, So Few on Earth, published by Dundurn Press of Toronto, that describes her experiences from the ages of 7 to 9 at Lockwood School and Dormitory in Cartwright, Labrador. "We were treated as though we were objects, as opposed to people, in my opinion," she said in an interview. If the government settles, "it would really make me feel as though finally we're validated, that we're 'part of,' that we matter."
In a blog post about the residential schools before she was elected, Ms. Wilson-Raybould wrote that several of her relatives, including her late grandmother, attended St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C., which she called "a symbol of cultural tyranny."
In an e-mail, a spokesperson for the Indigenous and Northern Affairs department offered a different view of the case: "Abuse of children is tragic and unacceptable. Canada has not employed delay as a tactic in this matter and would never do so. Canada believes that cases involving institutional liability for sexual abuse should include all those entities involved with the operation of the institution(s). Canada did not operate, manage, nor [sic] control any of the five facilities and only provided funding to the Province. These were not federal 'Indian Residential Schools.'"