After a decade-long legal battle over whether indigenous people who suffered physical and sexual abuse at residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador should receive federal compensation, Ottawa is agreeing to pay $50-million to the more than 800 remaining survivors, lawyers for the victims said Tuesday.
In choosing to settle the class-action lawsuit, which still must be approved by a judge, the Liberal government is hoping to close one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history and fulfill one of the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called on the government to end its legal wrangling with those who were left out of a multibillion-dollar settlement for residential school survivors in 2007. Newfoundland and Labrador was the only province that was excluded from the deal.
If approved, former students who lived in residences will receive between $15,000 and $20,000, depending on how long they were at the school, as part of a plan designed to distribute the funds as speedily as possible. Those who suffered abuse will be eligible for additional compensation of up to $200,000, lawyers said.
Toby Obed, who attended a residential school in North West River, said he was pleased with the settlement, but denounced what he says was a drawn-out and emotionally draining process. He said he has yet to fully recover from the testimony he delivered in October describing the abuse he endured as a child.
"Today, justice has been done. It's taken a while, and it never should have taken this long, but I believe justice was served," he said. "I can let my inner child rest. I can move on with my life now, I can put this chapter – it's a chapter I don't want to relive, I don't want to have any more, and I can put it to rest."
Tuesday's announcement marks the end of an at times bitter case. For years, government lawyers rejected calls to negotiate a settlement, and in November, attorneys for the victims accused Ottawa of trying to "outlast" elderly survivors by dragging out the proceedings in court. At least a hundred former students died during the course of the legal fight, including two of the seven original plaintiffs, Steven Cooper, a lawyer for the victims said in an interview.
One of those plaintiffs, Edgar Lucy, died just a month before news of the settlement reached the victims, Mr. Cooper said.
"That to me epitomizes the irony of the settlement occurring now," he said, adding "at least families will know that their loved ones are having their stories validated."
The previous Conservative government argued Ottawa was not responsible for running schools in North West River, Cartwright, Nain and Makkovik – all in Labrador – or in St. Anthony in northern Newfoundland.
The International Grenfell Association ran three of the schools, while the German-based Moravian Missionaries ran the other two.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs countered that, after the province joined Confederation in 1949, Ottawa had the same legal duty to indigenous students in the province as elsewhere in Canada.
In a statement released Tuesday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said the government will "continue to pursue the vital work of advancing reconciliation with indigenous peoples and all Canadians, to bring closure to the legacy of tragic abuse of indigenous children."
Members of the class-action suit must now be notified of the proposed settlement. Any objections will be heard in court starting Sept. 27 before Judge Robert Stack rules on whether to approve the deal.
General compensation payments are expected to use up about $12-million to $16-million.
Lawyers from the three firms representing the victims are asking for one-third of the $50-million.
Survivors from residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador were excluded from a 2008 apology by then prime minister Stephen Harper. While the current government has agreed to compensate victims, it has yet to admit any wrongdoing – a step victims like Cindy Lyall, who experienced abuse at a school in North West River, see as necessary.
"I'm hoping for an apology, and I expect we will get one," she said. "Today is a start. It's a start of moving forward."
With a report from The Canadian Press