The claims process to compensate thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit for harms suffered while attending federally-operated Indian day schools could be indefinitely delayed pending a court challenge.
The settlement, which offers former students a range of compensation between $10,000 and $200,000, was approved by the Federal Court on Aug.19. Claims were to begin being processed 120 days after the approval — on Dec. 17 — subject to any appeals.
Paul-Émile Ottawa, chief of Conseil des Atikamekw de Manawan in Quebec, filed a court challenge in October.
"We think that the victims of serious abuse could suffer serious harm because it currently limits access to fair justice," Ottawa told Radio-Canada about the settlement agreement.
"I understand people who want to get their money quickly, but we worked together with our members and that is why we are challenging."
Twenty-two former day school students in Manawan, an Atikamekw community 270 kilometres north of Montreal, filed a civil suit in Quebec Superior Court in the summer of 2018, arguing the former Department of Indian and Northern Affairs is responsible for sexual abuse of students by two teachers at the community's day school in the 1960s and '70s.
Ottawa's Montreal-based lawyer David Schulze said under the Civil Code of Quebec, if someone suffers from sexual abuse as a child, that person has 30 years to sue from when they realize what damage — physiological, emotional, or financial — that abuse caused. In other provinces, there is no limitation. He argues the day school settlement agreement reduces that time to the two and a half years before its claim deadline.
"At the end of the 2.5 years, they have no rights left whatsoever even if there is suffering from an incapacity and [they] could not file a claim," he said.
"That's not an improvement on their access to justice. That's a reduction of their access to justice."
He said the agreement was also only made available in French 10 days prior to the Federal Court hearing, and other documents were only translated after the approval.
"In Manawan, the main language is still Atikamekw. People speak French, and very few people speak English as a third language," said Schulze.
Shulze said his client is still waiting to hear from the Federal Court if they will be granted leave to appeal. Until the challenge is addressed, the claims process cannot begin.
This has caused concern to a number of survivors who have commented in the past month on the McLean Class Action on Indian Day Schools Facebook page where updates from class counsel are posted.
Gowling WLG, the law firm handling the settlement, did not respond to a request for comment.
AFN requests court challenge be dropped
Concerns about the delay were also expressed at the Assembly of First Nations special assembly this week in Ottawa. Chief Ottawa's court challenge was the subject of a resolution passed unanimously Thursday morning.
The resolution, moved by chief Karen Batson from Pine Creek First Nation and seconded by Margaret Swan, proxy for Pinaymootang First Nation, Man., requests Ottawa withdraw the proceedings so that "survivors and their families may see justice and begin their healing journey."
The resolution states that many day school survivors are sick or elderly, with approximately 150 dying each month.
"Chief Ottawa, please respectfully remove your appeal and help us move this forward. And if you proceed with your own lawsuit, we will be there to support you," said Swan to applause.
Ottawa was not in attendance at the assembly. He had no comment about the resolution but said he will be meeting with AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde next week.