A lawsuit aimed at forcing the federal government to compensate former Indian day-school students has attracted the attention of one man in particular in the Northwest Territories.

Robert Sayine, a former MLA and chief, attended both St. Joseph's residential school and day school in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., when he was young.

He was compensated for the time he spent at residential school, but not for the three years he spent attending day school while still living at St. Joseph's.

Sayine said the government's refusal to pay him for his day-school years is wrong. He welcomes the opportunity to join the class-action suit, spearheaded by Spirit Wind, a non-profit organization based in Manitoba.

"You know, the discipline was the same — the curriculum, the school, the teachers were also the same," Sayine told CBC News.

He said the discrimination he suffered at school prevented him from living a traditional Dene lifestyle.

Thousands affected

An estimated 75,000 aboriginal students attended government-funded, church-run day schools during the residential school era, said Ray Mason, who heads the Manitoba group leading the lawsuit.

They lived in convents, boarding houses, hostels and orphanages, rather than in school dormitories.

"Really, it shouldn't be any different, but they were left out," Mason said.

The issue is dividing families and communities as some former students received compensation money for the abuse they suffered and others have not.

Residential schools were set up in the late 1800s to assimilate aboriginal people into the larger culture by teaching them basic writing and reading skills and helping them learn occupations such as farming.