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Indian Residential Schools: A Brief History of the Largest Abuse Claim Settlement Ever

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Between 1920 and 1996 the Canadian government engaged in a concerted effort to eliminate Native Canadian Aboriginal people through a process of forced assimilation. Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in Church run “Residential Schools” where they were prevented from speaking their own language and practising their spiritual beliefs, and horribly mistreated.

By 1995 former Residential School students across the country had filed dozens of individual civil claims for compensation for physical and sexual abuse they suffered in the schools.

In 1996 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples described the Residential School Assimilation process:

“The removal of children from their homes and the denial of their identity through attacks on their language and spiritual beliefs were cruel. But these practices were compounded by the too frequent lack of basic care — the failure to provide adequate food, clothing, medical services and a healthful environment, and the failure to ensure that the children were safe from teachers and staff who abused them physically, sexually and emotionally. In educational terms, too, the schools — day and residential — failed dramatically, with participation rates and grade achievement levels lagging far behind those for non-Aboriginal students.”

Here’s the link to the full Royal Commission Report www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ch/rcap/index_e.html

In 1996 I was retained by Nora Bernard to file a Representative Action on behalf of all of the former students of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia. The claim was the first of it’s kind in Canada to seek compensation for all former students of a Residential School and the first to seek compensation for loss of language and culture. Here’s the link to Arnold McKiggan Hutchison’s webpage for the Shubenacadie claims https://www.apmlawyers.com/irscu.htm

In 1997 my friend and colleage Russ Raikes filed the Cloud class action on behalf of all former students of the Mohawk Institute Residential School and their family members.

In 1998, facing more than a thousand claims from former Residential School students, Canada issued a “Statement of Reconciliation” apologizing for the “tragedy” of the Residential Schools.

In 2000 the number of claims filed against Canada had topped 6,000.

In 2002 more than 8,000 abuse claims had been filed against Canada. Thompson Rogers filed a National Class Action on behalf of Charles Baxter and Elijah Baxter seeking compensation for all former Indian Residential School students in Canada, and their family members. The Shubenacadie survivors joined the Baxter National Class Action.

By 2004 Canada was facing more than 12,000 Residential School abuse claims. In December 2004 the Ontario Court of Appeal certified the Cloud class action.

In 2005 the Supreme Court of Canada denied Canada’s request for leave to appeal the Cloud decision. In May 2005 Canada appointed former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci to negotiate a “lasting resolution” to the legacy of Indian Residential Schools. Here’s the full text of the announcement http://www.irsr-rqpi.gc.ca/english/news_30_05_05.html

I am proud to have participated in the negotiations with Canada on behalf of the Shubenacadie Survivors as part of the Baxter class action’s negotiating team. Other stakeholders included the Assembly of First Nations, representatives for former students, and Religious organizations that ran the schools. After six months of negotiations the parties reached an Agreement in Principle to compensate former Residential School students and their families.

The settlement includes an immediate fund of 1.9 Billion dollars to compensate all former Residential School students, estimated to be as many as 80,000 people. The settlement also requires Canada to fund an ongoing “Individual Assessment Process” to provide additional compensation for former students who suffered serious physical abuse and sexual abuse. The IAP claims are estimated to require further payments of 3 Billion dollars to Residential School abuse survivors over the next five years.

So there it is. 80,000 potential claimants. Up to 5 Billion dollars in compensation. The largest abuse claim settlement ever. But for those children who suffered through Canada’s misguided attempts at assimilation, and the generations that have felt the ripple effects of the harm caused by the schools, it is just the first step in a long process of healing and reconciliation.

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