Residential schools settlement all but ends dispute

Canadian Press

What's been dubbed the largest and most complicated class-action settlement in Canadian history has been settled in favour of the thousands of abused former students of Canada's controversial aboriginal residential school system.

The decade-old dispute with the federal government largely came to an end yesterday after judges in six provinces and Yukon gave the settlement their stamp of approval, leaving Nunavut and the Northwest Territories as the only jurisdictions left to approve the deal.

"I think that people are very happy that the courts have unanimously endorsed the settlement as fair and reasonable," said Jon Faulds, an Alberta lawyer who is part of a national consortium of lawyers representing the victims.

"It's the first time in Canadian history that so many courts have been involved in the approval of a class-action settlement. It's an enormous challenge and I think, apart from anything else, it should be hats off to the courts for having found a way to make this work."

While there are about 10,500 individual cases before the courts and about 3,000 more in a government alternative dispute-resolution program, there's an estimated 80,000 people in total who are entitled to benefits.

The settlement includes a "common experience" payment of, on average, $24,000, which will be available to all former students who were taken away from their families and sent to various institutions across the country.

The estimated 12,000 to 20,000 people who suffered physical and sexual abuse will be eligible for an additional $5,000 to $275,000 each and could get even more if they can show a loss of income.

While all the judges approved the basic provisions of the settlement, some identified a variety of "administrative wrinkles" that will need to be ironed out before the cash begins to flow.

"They are mostly about making sure the court has adequate powers to supervise the settlement as it's being implemented," Mr. Faulds said. "The courts want to make sure that adequate resources are devoted to the process to make sure that all of the claims are processed very quickly."

As with any class-action lawsuit, there's a two-month window for named parties to appeal the court judgment. Toronto lawyer Craig Brown said none are expected in this case.

"We believe that compensation for the wrongs committed in the Indian residential school system will start to flow in the middle of next year," Mr. Brown said. "And that's great, great news for everybody."

Mr. Brown said judges in the territories need a bit more time to write up their decisions because of the travelling they're required to do in their daily work. They're likely to complete their judgments over the holidays and submit them to the court in early January.

The deal also includes $125-million for the aboriginal healing fund, $60-million for a truth-and-reconciliation process to document the history and legacy of government-run Indian residential schools and $20-million for commemorative projects.

The most controversial aspect of the settlement is an estimated $100-million set aside for legal fees.

When all is said and done, it is expected the federal government will have spent as much as $5-billion in restitution.