The Canadian government has reached an agreement in principle with survivors of the Sixties Scoop worth some $800 million, Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced Friday morning, putting an end to years of fractious legal action.
She said the move will "begin to right the wrongs" caused by forcibly removing Indigenous children from their birth families.
"They have lived their lives not being able to be proud Indigenous people," Bennett said of the then children who were adopted out of their home communities. "They have lived their lives not having secure personal cultural identity. That was robbed away. Someone thought that a non-Indigenous family somewhere else in the world was going to do a better job."
Indigenous survivors from as far away as Scotland, northern California, and many places in between, were on hand for the landmark announcement Friday.
Bennett said a final agreement still has to be reached, but the government has set aside $750 million for individual compensation. They've earmarked another $50 million for a foundation dedicated to reconciliation initiatives.
All First Nations and Inuit children who were removed from their homes — and lost their cultural identities as a result — between 1951 and 1991 are entitled to compensation. If there are more than 20,000 claimants, each individual will receive a payout of $25,000 and if there are fewer than 20,000 each claimant will receive up to a maximum of $50,000.
The government is putting aside an additional $75 million for legal fees.
Bennett said the government secured a commitment from lawyers that they wouldn't go back to survivors demanding more money, a solution designed to avoid one of the major pitfalls of the Indian residential school settlement in which many students faced huge legal bills after receiving their compensation.
The federal government has retained most adoption records, and Crown wardship and temporary wardship records, while harder to get, are usually held by the respective provinces. Those documents will be used to validate a claim. (A "ward" is a child placed under protection of a legal guardian, but who remains the legal responsibility of the government.)
Eight-year court battle
In February, after an eight-year court battle, an Ontario Superior Court judge found the federal government failed to prevent on-reserve children from losing their Indigenous identity after they were forcibly taken from their homes as part of what's known as the Sixties Scoop.
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Thousands of First Nations children were placed in non-Indigenous care between 1965 and 1984, which resulted in psychological harm that has dogged survivors into adulthood, Justice Edward Belobaba wrote in his ruling.
Belobaba said Canada breached its "duty of care" to the children and ignored the damaging effects of the Ontario-led program.
There are lawsuits in other jurisdictions over similar programs that placed children in foster care or with adoptive parents.
The settlement announced Friday is national in scope, and is expected to put an end to most of the 18 related lawsuits that are active throughout the country.
In an interview, Jeffery Wilson, the lawyer who represented the Ontario survivors, said the agreement announced Friday is better than anything that could have been handed down in court, because the adversarial system is not well equipped to deal with compensation for the loss of cultural identity.
"Is $750 million enough to redress this problem? Hard to say. How do you quantify something that has been never been tested in the law in the Western world? The whole idea is unknown.
"This is a day where Canada really is a hero, because this is the first country, in a world of increasing divisiveness, that has said we respect and recognize the right to a cultural identity," he said. "No amount of money can compensate for the harm that was suffered, but it's a step in the right direction. It's partly symbolic."
Wilson said the form to apply for compensation will be "so simple you don't need a lawyer."
Marcia Brown Martel, 53, the lead plaintiff in the Ontario action, a member of the Temagami First Nation near Kirkland Lake, Ont., said this is not the end of the process but rather the "plateau" as there is still much more healing to do.
"There is great hope within myself that Indigenous children in this country … will never again be taken from their culture. The time of stealing children and placing them into something that is not their lifestyle, their culture, gone from their language, those days are coming to a close," she said.
Brown Martel said she agreed to a settlement, outside the court process, in large part because the government put aside a pot of money to encourage reconciliation efforts to chart a "path forward" after decades of pain.
The millions earmarked for other reconciliation initiatives could be used to fund some of the projects she has long called for, including the construction of a public memorial, the creation of a "healing foundation," which would be a safe space for survivors where they could engage with Indigenous culture, and the creation of a scholarship fund for post-secondary studies on reconciliation.
Belobaba's February ruling in the Ontario class-action lawsuit paved the way for some sort of financial settlement, after Bennett said the federal government would not appeal the ruling.
The settlement amount is less than the $1.3 billion the lawsuit sought on behalf of about 16,000 Indigenous children in the province who claimed they were harmed by being placed in non-Indigenous homes under the terms of a federal-provincial child services agreement.
The plaintiffs argued — and Belobaba agreed — that Ottawa breached part of the agreement that required consultation with First Nations about the child welfare program.