Ottawa shift buoys natives

Former residential school students could share receive up to $6-billion

The federal government signalled its willingness yesterday to compensate all former students of residential schools regardless of whether they suffered physical or sexual abuse, in a major policy shift that could cost as much as $6-billion.

But a final compensation deal and actual payments are still at least a year away.

The announcement, which is indirectly contained in a political agreement signed yesterday between Ottawa and the Assembly of First Nations, commits the federal government to a payment scheme "along the lines" of that recommended by the AFN.

The AFN's plan calls for payments to each of the estimated 87,000 surviving students at an average cost of just under $50,000 each.

Just two months ago, Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan adamantly opposed lump sum payments before a Commons committee, arguing that compensation for loss of culture was not "a recognized legal cause of action in Canada " and that payments without validation could raise the ire of the Auditor-General.

Ms. McLellan , who is responsible for the residential schools settlement, acknowledged for the first time yesterday that the government's current approach is "not enough, quite clearly."

As a replacement to its alternate dispute-resolution process, the government announced that retired Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci has been appointed to work with the AFN and with individuals currently before the courts in class-action suits to devise a final settlement that would be acceptable to all.

The government did not indicate whether Mr. Iacobucci's recommendations will be binding on the federal government, and his March 31, 2006, deadline means a federal election will likely have taken place by the time he reports.

AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine called yesterday a "truly historic day" that will allow aboriginal Canadians to "turn the corner" and focus on the future.

"This is a moment for the ages," he said. "We put forward a business case that was so convincing we were able to turn everybody around, including the Deputy Prime Minister."

Although Mr. Fontaine repeatedly said the deal commits Ottawa to "lump sum" payments, neither Ms. McLellan nor the two other ministers at the announcement used the phrase.

When asked about the AFN's estimate that its proposal would cost the government between $4.3-billion and $6.1-billion over two years, Ms. McLellan said Mr. Iacobucci would determine the amount of compensation.

Conservative aboriginal affairs critic Jim Prentice said his party is cautiously optimistic about the announcement, but added the deal itself does not resolve anything.

The Tory MP would not say whether a Conservative government would accept the report's recommendations.

New Democrat MP Pat Martin said he too is optimistic that lump sum compensation is on its way, but said the announcement fell short of clearly resolving the issue and that about 2,000 former students will die waiting for Mr. Iacobucci's report.

About 130 residential schools operated in Canada between 1840 and 1996. With an average age of 57, the number of former students dying has been outpacing the number reaching settlements. Statistics Canada found more than 105,000 survivors in 1991, but only 87,500 by 2004.