Residential schools settlement agreement needs review, says Dene National Chief

​Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus says that there are "mistakes" in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and is calling for it to be reviewed.

Lawyer agrees agreement can be exclusionary, but says renegotiation isn't the solution

Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus is calling for the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to be re-examined, saying it is exclusionary and filled with mistakes. (Pat Kane/CBC)

​Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus says that there are "mistakes" in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and is calling for it to be reviewed.

The agreement, which was reached in 2006 between the Government of Canada, churches and Indigenous Canadians who went through the residential school system, established a $2 billion common experience payment fund for former students — the largest class action settlement in Canadian history — along with an independent assessment process for further compensation for former students, a healing fund, a truth and reconciliation fund and a commemoration fund. So far more than $3 billion has been paid out through the agreement.

However, Erasmus says it's strayed from its ultimate goal of reconciliation.

"When the agreement was put together, there really was no blueprint. There were mistakes," Erasmus says.

The agreement lays out how former residential school students should be compensated, and included a common experience payment to anyone who went to residential school and a separate Independent Assessment Process for those who suffered physical and sexual trauma.

But Erasmus says too many former students have been left out or had their claims denied. For example, Erasmus says, the residential school run in Behchoko, N.W.T., wasn't included in the agreement because it was later taken over by the territorial government.

"The parties should be able to sit down now and go over it and say: 'nine, 10 years later these are the areas we still need to address' and to figure out a way to deal with it," Erasmus says.

In March, it was revealed the federal government withheld thousands of documents that could have corroborated former students' reports of physical and sexual abuse at St. Anne's residential school in northern Ontario.

Last month, a court ruling let Catholic groups off the hook from fundraising tens of millions of dollars for healing programs for former students of residential schools.

Renegotiating not the answer, says lawyer

Lawyer Steven Cooper helped negotiate the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, and agrees it has its problems.

"The agreement was intended to be inclusive and unfortunately as it evolved, it became more and more exclusive, where technical terms were being carefully interpreted as if we were in front of a court of law, as opposed to adjudication," says Cooper.

"That is a problem."

Cooper recalled one case where a student was raped just metres from a residential school, but received no compensation through the Independent Assessment Process, because the abuse did not happen on school property.

However Cooper says redoing the agreement isn't the solution.

"We have a significant number of people who are outliers who are not well served by this agreement. But the reality of it is that most people got a fair settlement in a very sensitive and well-run process," Cooper says.

"Basing a review of an agreement based on the few flaws in it is really not fair to the agreement or people who drafted it."

Cooper says that those who feel they weren't properly compensated should use civil litigation against government and churches.

On Tuesday, the Government of Newfoundland settled a civil lawsuit with former residential school students in that province who'd been left out of the original agreement.