An emotional, decade-long battle ended quickly Wednesday for hundreds of former students of Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools.
After a two-day hearing, a provincial Supreme Court judge gave his expedited approval for a $50 million class-action settlement with the federal government.
“Everybody is thrilled,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Steven Cooper.
“You have to remember that when we started this claim, we said it was worth $50 million. Well guess what, we settled for $50 million. That doesn’t happen very often in litigation.”
The settlement was reached in May, but required Justice Robert Stack’s approval before any money could be paid out. Because of his expedited ruling Wednesday, the payment process can begin once the 30-day appeal period ends.
The approval comes about 10 years after the fight began and eight years after former prime minister Stephen Harper excluded the province from a national apology and related compensation package.
His Conservative government argued the Newfoundland and Labrador schools weren’t “akin” to now-defunct institutions under the federal Indian Act that were the subject of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
Cooper said the roughly 800 to 1,000 class-action members now want an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But he said he has no doubt Trudeau will eventually make an apology, adding there are indications it could come in the spring.
He said the legal process became much swifter after the Liberals took power last year.
“The judge did specifically note that at times this case became acrimonious,” said Cooper, adding that in one decision, Stack ruled that Canada had abused the process.
“From that aggressive attempt to deny justice to a settlement for essentially everything we asked for in a matter of three or four months really does go to the heart of this.”
Students who lived in school residences for less than five years will be eligible for $15,000 in general compensation, while those who lived there five years or more will be eligible for $20,000.
Approval would be based on a streamlined, trust-based application process overseen by a judge, Cooper has said.
Compensation for sexual or significant physical abuse could be up to $200,000 and must be based on sworn testimony.
The federal government will also contribute an undetermined amount for healing programs to be guided by aboriginal leaders, and for commemoration.
Aboriginal students who attended the schools before the province joined Confederation in 1949 will not be eligible, said Cooper. That group is only around 15 people, he said.
About 120 class members died waiting for a resolution.
Cooper said in an unusual move, Stack approved the settlement Wednesday in order to expedite the payment process. He said normally the judge would give reasons for his judgment, which could have extended the approval process by as much as a month.
Cooper said lawyers involved in the case will receive about one third of the settlement for fees.Report Typo/Error