by Tracey Lindeman
Published in Vice on May 10, 2016
After more than a decade of what class-action lawyers describe as “hard-fought litigation,” a group of survivors of Canada’s notorious residential school system — which systematically ripped Indigenous children from their families in an assimilation effort — has reached a $50-million settlement with the federal government.
The details of the proposed settlement were announced Tuesday morning at the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court.
Between 750 and 900 survivors who attended Lockwood School, Nain Boarding School, St. Anthony Orphanage and Boarding School, Makkovik Boarding School and the Yale School between 1949–1979 will receive compensation under the settlement.
“Relieved” — that’s the first word that comes to survivor Cindy Dwyer’s mind after learning of the settlement.
“I don’t have to go through no more … no more court, no more interviews about the past and what went on in the past. No more talking about the court case. It’s all over with,” Dwyer says on the phone from her home in Mount Pearl, NL.
Class-action lawyer Steven Cooper says the case originated nearly 10 years ago, after Newfoundland and Labrador was excluded from the $4-billion Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The federal government under former prime minister Stephen Harper argued that because residential schools existed in Newfoundland and Labrador before the province entered the Canadian Confederation in 1949, Ottawa couldn’t be held responsible for abuses suffered there.
The federal government was aggressive, non-conciliatory and took a hard line on the law,” Cooper says. He says he was “shocked” at how hard the federal government fought against compensating residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“The first few times that I testified, it was alright. But this last court hearing that we had, it literally took the good life out of me. I was physically drained … I had no life to me. I was beat.”
He also points out that the case has moved much more quickly under the new Liberal government, which agreed to settle in February at the tail end of the six-month trial that saw 29 residential school survivors testify.
The proposed settlement announced Tuesday — which is expected to be approved in September — is a bittersweet victory for the surviving plaintiffs represented by the suit. Cooper says at least 100 people in the class have died since proceedings began a decade ago.
Cindy Dwyer and Toby Obed, both of whom attended Yale School in North West River, took the stand during the trial. They, along with the other witnesses, detailed the physical, emotional and sexual abuse they suffered, as well as neglect and forced assimilation.
Dwyer, who attended Yale School between the ages of six and 15, says having to testify triggered post-traumatic stress she still grapples with today.
“I was very angry that we had to go through this. Going through the court process, it was like going through hell. You had to relive all the horrors you went through as a child. It was terrible. All these memories and flashbacks and depression,” says Dwyer, who is now 52.
“Oh my gosh, I’d be doing something and then I’d get a flashback of being raped when I was six years old, right out of the blue. I was like that for months and months and months. There was no need for it — we should never have had to go through it.”
For Obed, 44, the news of the settlement — which has been in the works for about a month but which was only made public on May 10 — stirred up mixed emotions.
“I’m glad we’ve reached an agreement and at the same time, I’m just — it’s a shock. I’m still trying to take it all in,” he says.
Obed, from Hopedale, Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador, estimates he attended Yale School between the ages of five and seven. After the school closed in 1979, he was placed in foster care. He describes testifying as an incredibly painful experience.
“The first few times that I testified, it was alright. But this last court hearing that we had, it literally took the good life out of me. I was physically drained … I had no life to me. I was beat,” he says. “It was hard. But I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore.”
Cooper, who took on the case with Ches Crosbie and Kirk Baert, says he expects cheques will be cut in late 2017. Amounts for people who die before the settlement is paid out will be directed to the survivors’ estates, he says.
The lawyers have asked the court to pay them a third of the value of the settlement. Cooper says his firm alone has already spent upwards of $4 million on the case.
He says he chose to take on this case because he grew up in the Northwest Territories, where he made a number of connections to the Inuit community. “This has been a matter of principle for me,” Cooper says. “I care about these people that I grew up with.”
Indeed, many of the plaintiffs in the class-action are Inuit from Newfoundland and Labrador, including Obed.
Obed says after compensation, all that’s left is to hear an official apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“I would love to hear an apology from the prime minister. It would mean a lot, not only to myself, but to a lot of us,” he says. “It would bring closure knowing that we are recognized and that we can just lay it to rest.”
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