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Residential schools deal unveiled in Newfoundland and Labrador: 'It's over'

Last Updated May 10, 2016 at 2:46 pm PST

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Former residential school student Toby Obed stood Tuesday in front of provincial Supreme Court in St. John’s, N.L., and cried.

He wept for himself as a traumatized child who, he testified in the same courthouse last fall, was strapped by staff for speaking his Inuit language, and who was sexually attacked at the age of seven by an older student.

Obed struggled to speak Tuesday just after lawyers for about 800 class-action members outlined for Judge Robert Stack a $50 million proposed settlement reached with the federal government.

“It’s over,” he sobbed. “After 10 years, I can let this rest.

“I’m still going to have to live with it, live with the demons,” he told reporters. “But I can put that behind me as best I can.”

Obed also cried for about 120 class members who died waiting for a resolution. He said it was shameful that the federal government under then-prime minister Stephen Harper excluded Newfoundland and Labrador from a national apology in 2008 and related settlement package that has paid out more than $4 billion.

Obed and 28 other former students were the only ones in the country forced to testify in open court about the alleged abuse they suffered.

“Why did they make us do this, anyway?” he asked.

Class members must now be notified of the proposed settlement. Any objections will be heard in court starting Sept. 27 before Stack rules on whether to approve the deal.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Steven Cooper said aboriginal students who attended the schools after the province joined Confederation in 1949 would be eligible for compensation so long as they were alive as of Nov. 23, 2006. That’s one year before litigation began. The estates of those who have died since the 2006 cutoff could apply, he said.

Students who lived in school residences for less than five years are eligible for $15,000 in general compensation while those who lived there five years or more are eligible for $20,000.

Compensation for sexual or significant physical abuse could be up to $200,000 and will be based on sworn testimony.

Cooper said the federal government would also pay an undetermined extra amount for healing and commemoration. An advisory committee including indigenous groups is to meet in June to plan.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Kirk Baert said eligibility for general compensation payments will be based on a streamlined application process to verify residence at the schools.

Archival paperwork has often been scant or lost.

“The people’s word will be accepted unless there are reasonable grounds to not accept that word,” Baert told the judge Tuesday.

General compensation payments are expected to use up about $12 million to $16 million.

Lawyers from three law firms who have worked on nine related applications over the last decade are asking for one-third of the $50 million.

The previous Conservative government argued Ottawa was not responsible for running schools in North West River, Cartwright, Nain and Makkovik — all in Labrador — or in St. Anthony in northern Newfoundland.

The International Grenfell Association ran three of the schools, while the German-based Moravian Missionaries ran the other two.

Defence documents denied the Newfoundland and Labrador schools were “akin” to now-defunct institutions under the federal Indian Act that were the subject of the federal Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs countered that, after the province joined Confederation in 1949, Ottawa had the same legal duty to aboriginal students in the province as elsewhere in Canada.

There was a change in tone after the Liberals took power last fall. Lawyers for both sides began working in February to reach a settlement by the end of this month.

In a statement Tuesday, Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, said the government will continue to work to bring closure for residential school survivors.

“The Government of Canada is committed to moving past this sad and terrible chapter in our history, and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada, through a renewed relationship, and by working to bring healing and closure to the survivors of these schools,” she said in a joint statement with her parliamentary secretary, Yvonne Jones.

Cooper said an apology is just as important to his clients as compensation.

“We hope and expect that the federal government will do the right thing,” he said in an interview.

“It’s a happy day today, but these survivors should not have been put through anything like this. It’s ridiculous.”

James Tuttauk, who testified last fall about sexual and other abuse at the school in North West River, said it’s a hard-won victory.

“You know, having never ever told anybody before — not even our parents — what happened to us, that was tough,” he said in an interview.

Tuttauk grew up not knowing his father. He moved into the dormitory at North West River at the age of nine, when his mother fell ill. He said many aboriginal parents were urged by church or government officials to send their kids to the schools for an education they would not otherwise get.

Instead, Tuttauk said many lost their Inuktitut language while enduring an abusive, love-starved childhood that still haunts aboriginal communities.

“Church officials had great power,” he recalled. “When someone comes and says: ‘This is the best for you,’ sometimes you just took it as gospel.”

Obed stressed that he and many other former students will continue to wait for an official apology.

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