The Federal Court of Canada has approved the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the government to compensate thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who attended federally operated Indian day schools.
Justice Michael Phelan issued his decision Monday, finding the settlement was "fair and reasonable and in the best interests of the class as a whole." It offers former students a range of compensation between $10,000 and $200,000, based on abuse suffered while attending the schools. A $200 million legacy fund will also be established for wellness and healing initiatives.
Indian day schools operated separately from residential schools, so students were left out of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that recognized the damage inflicted by residential schools and established a $1.9 billion compensation fund.
Day schools were operated by many of the same groups that ran residential schools, however.
An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended residential schools — but even more were forced to attend the day schools across Canada, the class-action settlement said.
The class action, which was handled by the law firm Gowling WLG, was filed on behalf of former students and families of students. The federal government announced a proposed settlement offer on March 12, but it had to be approved by the Federal Court. The hearings were held in May.
The court approved all parts of the settlement, including $55 million in legal fees for Gowling WLG. The six named plaintiffs in the lawsuit will each receive $7,500 honorariums.
Garry McLean of Lake Manitoba First Nation, the original lead plaintiff, died in February just two months after an agreement was reached to settle the lawsuit. The court's order said McLean's honorarium will be paid to a charity chosen by his family.
Margaret Swan, the current lead plaintiff, said she broke down when she heard that the settlement had been approved.
"Of course I thought of Garry and how hard he worked and all the effort he put into this lawsuit, and did a lot of crying," she said.
She said McLean helped her get through the times when she had to talk about her experiences as a child at school and how they had affected her life.
"When you look at the day schools and the residential schools, the biggest difference was that we didn't have to stay for long extended periods of time. We were able to go home at night," she said.
"But the abuse was very similar, almost the same. There was physical, emotional, sexual abuse, there was a lot of belittling and being told as an Indigenous person you were savage."
Reaction from survivors
Kenneth Deer, a day school survivor from Kahnawake, Que., said the approval is good news. Like many children who grew up in the late 1950s in his community, Deer attended the Kateri Tekakwitha School, a federally operated Indian day school run by the Roman Catholic Church.
He said he plans on applying for compensation when the claim process opens.
"I'm not going to let the government off the hook," said Deer.
"Even though that I think it's not adequate. Nothing that they can offer can really repair the damage that was done, however, I look at this as a punitive thing and victims should be compensated."
90-day opt-out period
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett told CBC News she was happy the judge had approved the settlement and that the former students were able to negotiate "a very fair deal" that addressed concerns they had about capping legal fees, extending the time allotted to make claims and not requiring former students to testify about abuse.
She said McLean was "an optimistic and positive leader in this process. I think today we think about how we miss him but how so many people will benefit from his courage and strength in coming forward ... and those other courageous survivors who told their stories."
The minister's office said a 90-day opt-out period and a 60-day appeal period will begin for any class members who do not agree with the terms of the settlement. Once that is complete, former day school students will be able to apply for compensation during a 2½-year period.
They're options clients of Montreal-based lawyer David Schulze will have to consider.
He represents the Atikamekw of Manawan, the Atikamekw of Opitciwan and the Council of Innus de Pessamit, three First Nations in Quebec that opposed the proposed settlement agreement.
"It's an agreement far, far too flawed, and not nearly good enough for survivors to merit approval," said Schulze.
"The agreement is about settling these claims quickly and cheaply, not about reconciliation and not about adequate compensation. Otherwise we would have given people way more time like we did in the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement."
There is 24-hour mental health counselling and crisis support available to former day school students at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca. Counselling is available in English, French, Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut.