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Healing 'can begin' over residential schools


Judges back $1.9B pact


December 16, 2006

CALGARY -- A $1.9-billion settlement between the federal government and former native residential school students was granted court approval yesterday.

In an unprecedented move, judges in several jurisdictions, including Alberta, released rulings approving the deal for tens of thousands of plaintiffs.

Calgary Justice Terrence McMahon, who okayed the agreement for Alberta litigants, said the pact will remove any risk the plaintiffs had of not proving their cases.

"Any litigation carries certain legal risks ... here the risk to the plaintiffs was great," said McMahon, noting some claims sought damages for novel actions, such as cultural genocide.

"The defendants might have argued that the operation of the schools met the prevailing standards in the early years in which they operated," he said, in a written judgment.

In May, the federal government approved a $1.9-billion sum for the estimated 79,000 former residential school students - with each litigant receiving a minimum $10,000.

An independent assessment process was also established where those who were physically or sexually abused could receive up to another $275,000, plus lost income.

McMahon noted as many as 15,000 people may have such claims and the total payout could exceed the $1.9 billion earmarked for the common experience claims.

The Queen's Bench judge noted time was not on the side of the plaintiffs, many of whom are elderly.

"Too many of them have died since the actions began," McMahon said.

Lawyer Vaughn Marshall, who represents more than 620 of the 3,950 Alberta litigants, said the court approval means those wronged can soon get some closure.

"This is the beginning of the last chapter where some of the healing can begin," Marshall said.

Before approving the agreement, McMahon had to certify the Alberta claims as a class action, meaning the deal is binding on anyone who doesn't opt out.

"In a class action, court approval is mandatory," Marshall said.

The decision means any of the nearly 80,000 surviving residential school students are entitled to compensation even if they haven't filed lawsuits.

The schools, which were run by religious groups under the federal government's authority, operated from 1920 to 1997.