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Participants head to the third round of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national hearings in Halifax on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The number of people coming forward to say they were seriously abused at Canada's Indian residential schools greatly outstrips early federal estimates and will boost the cost of settlements by more than $2-billion, federal officials say.

It is a situation that suggests the problems at the government-funded, church-run institutions that operated for most of the previous century were far more pervasive than originally believed.

With the Sept. 19 deadline for applications for compensation approaching, federal officials said Monday they expect the number of former students alleging serious sexual, physical or emotional abuse at schools to reach 30,000. That is 17,500 more than anticipated when the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was signed in 2006.

And, with average settlements of $117,613 also higher than estimated, the final costs could easily top $3.5-billion – far more than the $960-million originally budgeted. Combined with the money that is being offered under the Common Experience Program – which pays the former students according to the number of years they spent at the schools – the total compensation awarded to former residential school students could approach $5.4-billion.

Akivah Starkman, executive director for the Independent Assessment Process Secretariat, told reporters that the original estimates were based on the experiences of other countries in similar situations.

Since they were calculated, said Mr. Starkman, eight more schools have been added to the list of eligible institutions and an intensive outreach campaign has created broad awareness among survivors of the potential entitlements. In addition, he said, "I think it appears, based on the numbers, that the incidents of abuse may have been more widespread than what was initially anticipated."

Chief Robert Joseph, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, says the authorities completely underestimated the harm that was done.

"Because the residential school situation is historic and ongoing, they had no idea just how pervasive the abuse was. And in some ways that's a form of denial," Mr. Joseph said. "I think they tried to weigh the balance of good that might have come out of residential schools against the bad that did happen. And I think they were hopeful that things were better than they really were, and they weren't."

With the deadline looming, Mr. Joseph said he is not surprised to see a spike in the number of people applying for compensation. The survivors were all little children when the abuses occurred, he said. Many "were uncertain about the process and how open and receptive and fair it might be considering these abuses happened so long ago and we sometimes doubted ourselves about the times and dates and incidents," Mr. Joseph said.

But, even if some question whether the amount awarded is reasonable, Mr. Joseph said he believes the the adjudicators have been sensitive to the aboriginal experience and have been as fair as possible in assessing the stories of survivors.

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