WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A Federal Court judge has approved a $2.8-billion settlement agreement between the Canadian government and plaintiffs representing 325 First Nations whose members went to residential day schools.
Justice Ann Marie McDonald said in her ruling issued Thursday that the settlement is intended to help take steps to reverse the losses of language, culture and heritage through an Indigenous-led not-for-profit body.
“This settlement is historic both in terms of the quantum of the settlement and its unique structure,” McDonald said.
“As Canada remarked, the $2.8-billion settlement is not intended to put a value on the losses suffered by the Band Class members, as that is an impossible task.”
She called the agreement “transformational,” adding the settlement does not release the federal government from future lawsuits related to children who died or disappeared at residential schools.
“I am satisfied that the settlement is fair, reasonable, and in the best interests of Band Class members. The Settlement Agreement is therefore approved,” McDonald said.
The agreement was announced in January to settle the legal action for plaintiffs representing 325 nations seeking to address the harms done to their members by the residential school program.
Communities to decide use of settlement funds
As part of the agreement, the First Nations plaintiffs 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.
The settlement now goes into an appeal period, after which the money will be transferred to a not-for-profit fund managed by a board of Indigenous leaders.
Affected Indigenous communities will each get to decide what to do with their settlement funds, based on the “four pillars” principles outlined in the agreement: the revival and protection of Indigenous language; the revival and protection of Indigenous culture; the protection and promotion of heritage; and the wellness of Indigenous communities and their members.
McDonald’s decision also said that the funds and their proceeds cannot be used to fund individuals or commercial ventures, be used as collateral to secure loans or as a guarantee.
Agreement ‘means everything’: plaintiff
The suit was launched more than a decade ago by former Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc chief Shane Gottfriedson and former shíshálh Nation chief Garry Feschuk to seek justice and reparations for day scholars abused while attending residential schools.
Like residential schools, day schools aimed to assimilate Indigenous children while eradicating Indigenous languages and cultures and often had religious affiliations. There was also widespread abuse.
Day scholars were children who attended residential schools during the day but were able to go home at night and were left out of the 2006 residential schools settlement.
The suit initially consisted of the combined band reparations claim (known as the band class) and the residential school day scholars claim.
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, with the agreement announced in January pending court approval.
In February, Gottfriedsson told a Federal Court judge in Vancouver that reaching the settlement with the federal government “means everything” to him.
Gottfriedson said it was “about time Canada steps aside” and lets First Nations themselves decide how to mitigate the harms done by residential schools.
More details for 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.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat