Thursday morning, courtrooms across the country made history.
A group of nine Supreme Court judges, including Yukon’s Justice Ron Veale, signed an agreement to guide compensation payments for residential school survivors.
The accord allows survivors to apply for two types of compensation.
The first, called the “common experience payment,” is available to all residential school survivors alive as of May 30, 2005.
It offers a lump-sum payment of $10,000 for the first year they attended the school plus $3,000 for each subsequent year.
Even if the survivor only attended the school for one day, they would be eligible to claim a full year’s compensation.
The second is called an “individual-assessment payment,” and is tailored to survivors who suffered abuse at the schools.
The amount victims receive will vary, but it will be capped at about $430,000, including compensation for loss of income.
And that payment would be in addition to the common-experience payments.
The new agreement means survivors can no longer file claims under the existing dispute-resolution process.
Cases under that process may continue, or claimants can apply to have their claims rolled over into the new system.
“I think it’s very significant,” said Yukon lawyer Dan Shier after the Supreme Court hearing.
“It was an amazing process to see not only how a bunch lawyers at odds with one another — representing claimants, representing the government and representing churches — were able to come to a settlement agreement.
“That took a lot of work across Canada.”
Shier’s been working with residential school claimants for 15 years.
Although the agreement was signed on Thursday, claims cannot be filed under the new system until September.
Claimants have until August 20th to opt out of the agreement, which may be extended on an individual basis.
If more than 5,000 of the 15,000 claimants opt out, Canada may decide to continue with the agreement or scrap it and start over, said Shier.
If it moves forward, survivors can start filing new claims in mid-September.
With hundreds of Yukoners in line to receive compensation through the agreement, there is “significant” cash infusion poised to flow into the territory, said Shier.
“Some people will be receiving large amounts of money; many people will be receiving smaller amounts of money.
“It’s going to be important for lawyers like me, and others working with claimants, to give appropriate advice on the options available — what can people do with that money to ensure they’re using it the way they want to?”
Although it is too soon to tell how quickly the payouts will come, Shier expects the common-experience claims to be processed quickly because those only need to be verified.
The individual-assessment payments will take more time because they require hearings.
Ottawa has set aside nearly $2 billion for the payouts.
In addition to survivors’ compensation, it will also pay millions in legal fees to lawyers named in the agreement.
The National Consortium — a group of law firms representing nearly 80,000 plaintiffs — expects to receive more than $40 million, while fees for Saskatchewan’s Merchant Group remain in limbo.
Canada will also kick in an additional 15 per cent to help claimants cover their legal fees.
No lawyer will be taking a fee for processing the common-experience payment claims.
But they will be charging for processing the individual-experience payments.
And those fees are capped at 30 per cent of the total compensation.
“I think that’s reasonable; I think it’s important not to have large percentages,” said Shier.
“I think it’s right in the area of percentages that have been charged in the past for other sorts of cases that were not residential school cases.”
Under the agreement, a monitor will have “unfettered access” to oversee how the money is doled out.
The monitor will appear before the courts four times a year to report on implementation and operation of the individual-assessment payments.
The agreement also broadens the definition of those eligible to apply for common-experience compensation to include grandparents and grandchildren — as well as sibling, spouse, parents or children — of a survivor who died after May 30, 2005.
“It allows the money to go to the people that the claimants would have distributed it to as well,” said Shier.
“It just widens the scope enormously.”
“This is an historical court process,” said Veale after the hearing.
Veale was in conference with eight other Supreme Court justices across Canada — from the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec — to render the momentous decision.
Five of the nine judges attended the hearing in Calgary.
(Nunavut’s Justice Robert Kilpatrick had to leave the call early and shut down the Iqualuit courthouse because of blizzard conditions in the territory.)
The accord is the result of hearing held across the country in late 2006, where lawyers and judges heard stories of survivors’ experience and hammered out the terms of an agreement that all could compromise on.
At the Whitehorse hearings in October, survivors told the court of rape, molestation, and beatings from nuns, priests and ministers who ran the schools on Ottawa’s behalf.
“Every kid that ever went to residential school has suffered some sort of abuse: physical, mental, sexual, cultural,” said one Tlingit woman who attended the hearing and asked that her name not be used.
“No amount of money will ever make up for the hurt, for the devastation,” she said.