The federal government will begin implementing the Indian residential schools settlement agreement on Sept. 19, following the end of a five-month period that allowed members of a class action to withdraw.
As of the deadline, Aug. 20, “201 people chose to opt-out,” said Valerie Haché, media representative with the federal government’s Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada office. Under the terms of the settlement, it could have been stalled if more than 5,000 people had chosen to opt out of the agreement.
It is the culmination of a process that will see compensation offered to approximately 80,000 surviving former residential school students; it also limits the liability of the Anglican, Presbyterian, United and Roman Catholic churches that ran the schools.
According to the government, the schools agreement is the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. Over the past decade, thousands of aboriginals sued the government and the various churches that ran the boarding schools (including the Anglican church), alleging that they suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse in some of the schools. Many natives said their culture and languages were denigrated. The agreement settled a number of outstanding class-action lawsuits.
“As a residential school survivor, I can say it is a big step. For the government to acknowledge some harm was done, that is a good step toward healing,” said Rev. Andrew Wesley, an Anglican priest in Toronto who is Cree and who attended the Bishop Horden Hall Anglican school and St. Anne’s Roman Catholic school, both in Ontario.
Church officials also hailed the development. “There is a feeling of great relief that it is about to be implemented. It is not perfect, but it is not a bad agreement. It provides compensation for all surviving former students and if they experienced abuse, they can get additional compensation,” said Ellie Johnson, director of the Anglican Church of Canada’s partnerships department.
She added that she could understand why few people opted out of the agreement and pursued individual claims against the government and/or the churches. “They don’t have to go to court, which can be a very difficult process,” she said.
Former students must apply for the so-called “common experience payment” and staff at the Anglican church’s national archives in Toronto are helping former students validate their attendance at the 26 out of 80 schools run by Anglicans.
Two billion dollars has been set aside for the common experience payments and while the settlement agreement was in the court approval process in the past year, Ottawa offered elderly claimants an advance payment of $8,000 each. In an update on the residential schools Web site, the government said 10,334 elders have received advance payments for a total of $82.7 million. Ten per cent, or 1,327 advance payment applications were not approved due to missing or incomplete records.
“Talking to people through the summer, there is lots of excitement because they are waiting for their cheques to come in. There is talk of spending it on what they need and spending it wisely. There is talk of putting it away for their grandchildren,” said Mr. Wesley. The significance of compensation is that “it satisfies some need of the human body to be satisfied with money, but mentally and emotionally, there are still scars,” he said.
Additionally, former students who experienced abuse can access the “independent assessment process,” which adjudicates abuse claims and allocates compensation, up to $275,000 per claim. Those who have not withdrawn from the settlement agreement may only pursue abuse claims through the assessment process, not the courts. The government has allocated $960 million to pay for those claims.
The government is also setting up a truth and reconciliation commission that will hear experiences of former students, memorialize children who died at the schools and conduct research into the schools system.
“There will be more truth and pain that will come out of the truth and reconciliation commission,” said Mr. Wesley.