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Girls wash up St. Philip’s Indian Residential School in Quebec in 1947-1948.

It takes a cold-hearted government to acknowledge that a child has been abused while in its care but then refuses to pay compensation on the grounds that the abuse happened in the wrong part of a building.

That, in essence, is the argument that Justice Department lawyers made in 2010, three years into the historic residential school compensation program launched by Canada's still-reverberant Harper government. It is an injustice that cries out to be fixed by the Trudeau government.

Residential schools were originally run by churches but, in the 1950s and '60s, Ottawa took over the educational responsibilities in many of them. The Justice Department's argument was that, if a child was abused while in the residential part of a school where responsibilities were split, then compensation was due. But, as of 2010, if the abuse occurred on the federal side – in a classroom, a gymnasium, a playground or washroom – then compensation could be denied.

There are now cases where two members of the same family were abused by the same person in the same manner, but only one has been compensated because of where the abuse took place, according to Kathleen Mahoney, who represented the Assembly of First Nations during the talks that led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2007.

This is an obvious breach of the spirit of an agreement that was the only proper response to the cruel legacy of Canada's residential school system, in which for more than 100 years native children were taken from their families, raised in Christian schools and stripped of their native identities. It was a stain on Canada's history, one that the compensation program, along with the government's apology and the subsequent report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was meant to help lighten.

Native people who participated in the compensation program had to give up their right to sue the government. And now the government is playing some of them for fools, leaving them without compensation or recourse even as it acknowledges that they were abused. This cynical ploy undermines Ottawa's stated desire to put things right, and it needs to be dropped immediately.