Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. residential school lawsuit can proceed

A judge has given former residential school students from Newfoundland and Labrador approval to proceed with a class action lawsuit that claims they were mistreated at the schools from 1949 to 1979.

Class action seeks compensation for aboriginal students who were abused

A judge has given former residential school students from Newfoundland and Labrador approval to proceed with a class action lawsuit that claims they were mistreated at the schools from 1949 to 1979.

About 5,000 aboriginal children, mostly Inuit and some Métis, attended the schools.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons in 2008 to apologize to former students of aboriginal residential schools, he didn't include Labrador natives.

The federal government is denying any responsibility for the treatment they received, because the schools were not funded directly by Ottawa.

That didn't stop Labrador Inuit Jim Nitsman from attending the historic apology.

"When I walked out of the Parliament Building, that was the first time I felt Canadian. You know, but it was only the Labrador Inuit that were left out of that one. So it was sad that way," said Nitsman, who blames his schooling 40 years ago for his inability to speak Inuktitut.

Five residential schools were operated in Newfoundland and Labrador. Moravian Missionaries ran two, and the International Grenfell Association operated three.

The federal government maintains it had no involvement with those schools.

In certifying the class action suit, however, Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Justice Robert Fowler said Canada assumed responsibility for the welfare of aboriginal children when the province joined Confederation, and now it must prove it is not responsible for former Newfoundland and Labrador residential school students.

St. John's lawyer Ches Crosbie represents some of the former students who are part of the class action group.

"[The aboriginals] are being treated on an unequal basis with aboriginals who reside in other provinces. The federal government has kind of red circled aboriginal residents here and dug their heels in and decided that they're going to fight," said Crosbie.

He said the claims of Newfoundland and Labrador native people are similar to those made by natives who attended residential schools in other parts of Canada.

"It's all connected in the sense that the nature of the allegations are substantially similar as those made in the other residential school cases in the country … physical abuse and mental and cultural abuse. You could even argue cultural genocide," said Crosbie.

As for Jim Nitsman, he's relieved the class action will now go to court, but he's sad that it's too late for some of his friends who died before the class action was certified.

On Nov. 23, 2005, Ottawa announced a $2-billion compensation package for aboriginal people who were forced to attend residential schools across Canada.

In 2007, the federal government formalized a $1.9-billion compensation package for those who were forced to attend residential schools.

Details of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement include an initial payout for each person who attended a residential school of $10,000, plus $3,000 per year. Approximately 86,000 people are eligible for compensation.