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Abuse survivors finally to receive compensation

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OTTAWA -- Almost $2 billion in Canadian funds will be paid to aboriginal
survivors of the Canadian residential school system.

The settlement was announced Nov. 23, one day before the First Ministers
Meeting with national aboriginal leaders convened in Kelowna, British
Columbia.

Following six months of negotiations between the Assembly of First Nations
and the federal government, an agreement-in-principle was signed that has
resulted in the largest and most comprehensive settlement package in
Canadian history.

About 86,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit are eligible to collect these
payments, many of whom are more than 60 years old.

AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine, himself a survivor of these schools,
spoke at a press conference in Ottawa Nov. 23. He stated that before
Canada's elected politicians and Native leaders could address the health,
education and social issues that are troubling the country's reserves at
the First Ministers' Meeting, the legacy from this shameful past had to be
resolved.

"While no amount of money will ever heal the scars, we hope the settlement
package will bring comfort and a sense of victory and vindication for the
children and grandchildren of survivors as well; for they, too, have
suffered and witnessed the affects of the residential school legacy," said
Fontaine.

Lump-sum payments have been calculated on a "10 plus 3" basis, whereby
$10,000 will be given to all those who attended these schools with an
additional $3,000 per year thereafter. Those who are older than 65 are
immediately eligible for an early payment of $8,000.

Further, these awards will not override any pending individual lawsuits.
The agreement sets aside $800 million to cover plaintiff judgments and
increased the amount that can be won in court to a maximum of $275,000
while survivors have a reduced burden to substantiate their claims.

"Canada and the First Peoples of this country can be proud of this
settlement package," Fontaine said. "It has set the bar very high. It
affirms that all races in this country are equal: none deserved to be
assimilated or destroyed. It is an agreement for the ages."

For the better part of 100 years -- until the mid-1970s -- the federal
government operated residential schools that institutionalized aboriginals
which, under the guise of education, tore the children from their families
and stripped them of their heritage. By law, children as young as 4 were
taken from their parents without the need for consent and were returned for
only short periods of time.

In an attempt to Anglicize First Nations, school rules and civil laws
forbade the use of Native languages and cultural practices. Compounding the
problem within the residential schools were the numerous allegations, since
proven in court, of physical and sexual abuse by the educators -- most of
whom were associated with the Anglican and Catholic churches.

At the press conference, several of Canada's high-ranking ministers spoke
from the ruling Liberal party, including Justice Minister Irwin Cotler,
about the country's historical misdeeds.

"No agreement can erase the memories of generations of pain and suffering
and abuse, and that is why this agreement goes beyond monetary
recognition," said Cotler. "It is an agreement that seeks to provide
healing, to provide reconciliation, to provide the capacity for renewal."

Besides individual payments, the settlement package will also include
funding of $60 million for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the
goal of informing the public about residential schools. There will also be
community truth-telling processes, while individuals will be encouraged to
file their own personal statements for archival purposes.

Also benefiting from this agreement is the Aboriginal Healing Foundation,
which will receive $125 million over the next five years. Chairing this
foundation, which has been in operation since 1998, is George Erasmus, the
AFN national chief from 1985 -- '91.

Speaking from Kelowna, Erasmus acknowledged this financial compensation
will help erase the pain by providing a stable foundation where people can
get the culturally-sensitive help they require. However, he was looking for
specific words from other authoritative figures.

"An additional apology from the prime minister would clinch this nicely and
that is still possible," Erasmus said on CBC Television. "If the government
is going to go this far and acknowledge this is something that should never
have happened, it wouldn't be that much more to do. It wouldn't hurt to
also have it from heads of churches and the pope."

While it is generally acknowledged within Canada that compensation for
school survivors is long overdue, the only criticism has been the timing of
this announcement. During a tumultuous week on Parliament Hill, when the
three opposing parties were expected to vote on a non-confidence motion to
force the dissolution of the government, critics were questioning whether
this deal was seen as pre-election campaigning.

"This settlement could have been rolled out last spring but was delayed six
months for election timing," said member of Parliament Pat Martin, the
Indian and Northern Affairs Critic for the left-of-center New Democratic
Party.

It was Martin in March who spoke for two hours at a parliamentary committee
in favor of a deal of this nature, following the AFN's recommendations that
took 18 months to formulate. As the agreement stipulates only those who
were alive as of May 31 are entitled to collect, Martin alleged that
"playing politics" cost hundreds of survivors their opportunity for
compensation.

"Fifty survivors per week will never see justice, due to the Liberals
manipulating this settlement for their own political advantage," Martin
told Indian Country Today on Nov. 28, just hours before the non-confidence
vote.

Regardless of any possible election or subsequent government, this
settlement package will be respected by all political parties. The
Conservative Party (right-of-center), should it form the next government,
is on record stating it will acknowledge and honor this deal.