$2.8-billion settlement reached in class-action lawsuit over residential schools

A memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021. The federal government has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over the loss of culture and language brought on by Indian residential schools for $2.8 billion. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021. The federal government has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over the loss of culture and language brought on by Indian residential schools for $2.8 billion. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Officials announced Saturday that the federal government and 325 First Nations have agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit, seeking reparations for the loss of language and culture brought on by Indian residential schools, for $2.8 billion.

The agreement still has to be approved by a Federal Court before it can be disbursed to recipients, who filed the claim for collective compensation in 2012 as part of a broader class action known as the Gottfriedson case.

Canada agreed to pay the $2.8 billion of settlement money into a new trust fund that will operate for 20 years, if the court approves the deal. The fund will be run independent of the federal government, according to officials.

The fund organization will be governed by a board of nine Indigenous directors, of whom Canada will choose one, the agreement says.

"While settlements like those announced today ... do not make up for the past, what it can do is address the collective harm caused by Canada's past," said Marc Miller, the minister for Crown-Indigenous relations, at a Vancouver event Saturday morning. "The loss of language, the loss of culture and heritage."

Miller noted that this was the first time bands specifically were being compensated, with the funds set to support the four pillars of revival, protection, promotion and wellness of Indigenous languages and cultures.

Yasmin Gandham/CBC
Yasmin Gandham/CBC

Plaintiffs in the case, which was initially filed by the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc and shíshálh Nation in British Columbia, developed a disbursement plan for the funds, according to officials.

The Gottfriedson case is named after a former B.C. regional chief, Shane Gottfriedson, who filed it alongside shíshálh band councillor Garry Feschuk.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

It initially consisted of the combined band reparations claim (known as the band class) and the residential school day scholars claim. Day scholars are survivors who were forced to attend the institutions during the day but went home at night, and were left out of the 2006 residential schools settlement.

The Trudeau government reached an out-of-court settlement with day scholars in June 2021, agreeing to pay cash compensation to survivors and their descendants, settling part of the Gottfriedson case.

But Canada initially refused to negotiate with the remaining band reparations plaintiffs. Their case was heading for trial until it was abruptly adjourned to pursue negotiations last fall.

As part of the agreement, the band class members agreed to "fully, finally and forever" release the Crown from claims that could conceivably arise from the collective harms residential schools inflicted on First Nations, as alleged in a previous court filing.

This legal release would not cover or include any claims that may arise over children who died or disappeared while being forced to attend residential school, the agreement says.

Yasmin Gandham/CBC
Yasmin Gandham/CBC

First Nations to decide how to use funds

Gottfriedson said on Saturday that the agreement couldn't make up for Canada's "policy of attacking our language and culture," but that Indigenous nations would now be able to lead their own cultural revival efforts with the funds.

"Garry and I decided with our councils that we would stand together for our own day scholars and also for all of the Indigenous people in Canada who live with Canada's racist legacy," he said.

More details of how funds will be disbursed are expected in the months to come. Under the agreement, there will be an initial payment of $200,000 to all 325 First Nations, which will allow them all to create a 10-year plan for how they want to revitalize their language and culture, under the four pillars.

David Horemans/CBC
David Horemans/CBC

Peter Grant, lawyer and class counsel for the plaintiffs, said that as that plan is brought forward, there will be an initial "kick-start fund" of $325 million.

"Although that looks like an equal amount ... there will be a base rate, and then there will be a rate based on population," Grant said.

"Some nations are remote, so the cost for them to implement is much higher ... that will be determined by the board, but that will be an additional to the $325 million."

Grant says that it is entirely up to the nations how they wish to spend the settlement money, including on projects like cultural centres or language teachers. They are expected to report back to the non-profit board regularly, but there are no strict requirements for how funds are used, according to Grant.

"There's been a lot of thought in these four pillars that I think gives us that that ability in our leadership, the ability to be dynamic and create ... what's important to us as Indigenous people," Gottfriedson said.

Officials and claimants will appear before a Federal Court judge in Vancouver on Feb. 27 to seek approval for the settlement.