Band class action settlement gives First Nations control of programming dollars: lawyer

One of the lawyers representing First Nations in a $2.8 billion settlement with Ottawa over collective harms caused by the residential school system says the agreement is unique because it allows bands to spend the money how they see fit.

“Canada imposed the residential school policy.” John Phillips, of the Toronto-based firm Waddell Phillips, said. “It developed the curriculum, it imposed the teacher, it provided a school and it pounded the language and culture and identity out of Aboriginal children for 70 years. What we’re trying to do in some small way is to reverse that by letting the band decide.

“Take the education example. What teacher, what curriculum, what school and what program they want the children to be in.”

At a news conference in Vancouver on Jan. 20, Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister Marc Miller said the government signed the deal with plaintiffs representing 325 nations that opted into the Gottfriedson Band suit.

“While settlements that are being announced like these today do not erase or make up for the past … what it can do is help address the collective harm caused by Canada’s past — a deeply colonial one — in the loss of language, the loss of culture and the loss of heritage,” said Miller.

The lawsuit originally involved three classes of complainants, but in 2021 all parties agreed to concentrate initial settlement efforts on survivors and their descendants to ensure they’d receive compensation during their lifetimes.

Saturday’s announcement marked the settlement for the band class of plaintiffs, which Miller called “unfinished business” from the 2021 settlement.

Miller said the settlement will be guided by four pillars: 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.

It marks the first time Canada is compensating bands and communities as a collective for harms related to residential schools, he said.

“Reconciliation isn’t free, this is a lot of money,” Miller said. “Is it enough? I think only time will tell, but we know there’s a heck of a lot more to do.”

Phillips agrees with Miller that no amount of money can make up for what has been lost but the settlement amount has to be seen as significant.

“The answer is it’s never enough,” he said “It’s never going to be enough. But is this what we can achieve practically and really to try and get some level of reconciliation in some fixed communities? Yes. The fact of the matter is the $2.8 billion is a single line item in the federal budget. It’s a big deal.”

Miller said the $2.8 billion for members of the band class will be put in an independent, not-for-profit trust, adding more terms of the settlement will be released in the next month.

Former shishalh chief Garry Feschuk and former Tk’emlups te Secwepemc chief Shane Gottfriedson launched the suit more than a decade ago seeking justice for day scholars who were abused while attending the schools but who were ineligible for the 2006 settlement for full-time students.

“Today we are representing 325 Indigenous nations across Canada and have developed a settlement plan to allow for the nations to work towards the four pillars,” said Gottfriedson.

“This settlement that allows our Indigenous nations to control this process … we will manage and distribute the funds, we will provide it to all 325 nations in a fair and objective manner.”

Individual nations will decide which of the four pillars to focus on and will develop ten-year implementation plans.

A settlement approval will take place between Feb. 27 and March 1 before a federal court, followed by an appeal period before the funds are transferred to the trust.

With files from the Canadian Press 

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