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AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine during a purification ceremony before the announcement Wednesday.

The Liberal government offered tens of thousands of survivors of abuse at native residential schools up to $30,000 each in a $1.9-billion compensation package announced Wednesday morning.

Another $195 million will be spent on a truth and reconciliation process, a commemoration program and other projects designed to promote healing in First Nations communities.

"We have made good on our shared resolve to deliver what I firmly believe will be a fair and lasting resolution of the Indian school legacy," Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan said at a news conference in Ottawa.

She was flanked by other federal cabinet ministers and abuse survivors, including National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations.

"It's a wonderful day," said Fontaine, speaking of the years of negotiations that led to the agreement in principle. "I know that every moment has been worthwhile. Justice has prevailed."

Fontaine said the package covers "decades in time, innumerable events and countless injuries to First Nations individuals and communities."

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler also hailed the package, calling the decision to house young Canadians in church-run native residential schools "the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history."

The agreement must still be approved by the courts because of the high number of outstanding lawsuits launched over residential school abuse, McLellan said.

She said she hopes the seven courts in different provinces that have been dealing with class-action suits will see that the deal "is fair and just and will bring an end to this complex set of litigation that we have seen for many years."

A federal official said the courts will be approached as early as May to approve the agreement, once it is put into formal language.

Tens of thousands of former students could benefit

As many as 86,000 native Canadians who attended church-run schools across the country may be eligible for payments under the plan.

For decades, they had been fighting to have the government recognize the abuses they suffered in the school system that Ottawa supported financially between the 1870s and 1970s.

Tens of thousands of First Nations young people were taken from their families for months at a time and deprived of their culture, and many were sexually or physically abused by school staff.

The average age of survivors is 60, Fontaine noted Wednesday.

The package includes:

  • A "common experience payment" of up to $10,000 per person, plus $3,000 for every year a victim spent in the schools, at a cost to the federal government of $1.9 billion.
  • Compensation for claims based on sexual and physical abuse, as well as loss of language and culture.
  • A speeded-up process to get an initial $8,000 payment to claimants aged 65 and over while the rest of the program's details are sorted out.
  • Five-year funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, totalling $125 million.
  • $60 million for a truth and reconciliation process.
  • $10 million to commemorate what happened in the schools, to assist in victims' healing.
  • An agreement that victims accepting compensation payments cannot sue the federal government and the churches running the schools except in cases of sexual and serious physical abuse.
  • An alternate dispute-settling process to deal with separate claims for sexual abuse and serious physical abuse.

The federal government's package did not include a national apology for the abuses. McLellan said that was not a part of the negotiations "for this process."

Karen Shaboyer, a former residential school student who works at an aboriginal cultural centre in Toronto, said the agreement is a good start. She hopes it will open the eyes of non-native people, at the very least.

"You see a lot of my people today who may be staggering on the street, and people just call them down, but really, that person is holding a lot of pain and they don't know how to deal with it," said Shaboyer.

Package called 'deathbed conversion'

NDP native affairs critic Pat Martin calls the package a deathbed conversion on the part of the Liberals.

He says the looming federal election likely prompted the announcement, which came a day before Prime Minister Paul Martin attends a first ministers' conference on native affairs in Kelowna, B.C.

"The government is doing the honourable thing, but it does have the stink of desperation to it," the New Democrat MP said.

In May, former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci was appointed to help Ottawa develop a plan to compensate victims and avoid the costly lawsuits facing the courts.

About 12,000 survivors of residential school abuse are now suing Ottawa.