The Cree Nation Government is joining the growing opposition to the proposed McLean Day School Settlement with the federal government. The CNG is among a dozen groups that have applied for intervenor status in the case.
In March, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced that eligible day school survivors would each receive between $10,000 and $200,000. The settlement proposal is the result of a class action lawsuit led by the late Garry McLean and filed by Gowling WLG on behalf of day school attendees.
The lawsuit alleges that the almost 200,000 children who were forced into federally-run day schools between the late 1800s and 1970s suffered abuse and neglect.
One of the major concerns with the proposed settlement is that it would require claimants to recount their experiences at day schools in writing rather than in person, as all claims would have to be filed on paper. The proposal is currently in the 60-day review period and still needs to be given the green light by a Federal Court judge at hearings scheduled May 13-15 in Manitoba.
According to Cree Nation Government Executive Director Bill Namagoose, the proposed agreement seriously misses the mark.
“We’ve reviewed the agreement and it’s deeply flawed,” Namagoose said. “People only have one year left to seek compensation and there’s no way 129,000 people can be compensated in one year by one law firm.”
According to Namagoose, the CNG intervention seeks a return to the negotiating table to improve the agreement. He is concerned that those who attended day schools will be unable to prove that they were directly subjected to abuse.
“[Survivors] have to allege that they’ve been abused” in order to receive compensation, he said. “That’s not right because people who have not been abused are going to be forced to make allegations.”
Instead, it should be explicit that anyone who attended the schools is eligible for compensation, Namagoose insisted. “They were all exposed to that potential violence, whether or not they were personally affected.”
Jeremy Bouchard is a Mohawk and a lawyer at Gowling WLG, the law firm that led the class-action lawsuit. Bouchard told the Nation that time is of the essence, estimating that “nearly 2000” day-school survivors die every year.
While Bouchard noted that claimants would be expected to provide documentation such as photos and personal correspondence to prove their claim, he explained that the settlement is designed to avoid court hearings and cross-examination.
“The approach that we’ve developed was intended to keep the application and validation process simple, culturally sensitive, non-adversarial and user-friendly,” Bouchard said. “Class members are treated with dignity and respect. The Indian Day School process is specifically designed to avoid the lengthy and often re-traumatizing process of evidence collection, cross-examination and a confrontational hearing process.”
Bouchard says Gowling has visited “dozens of communities” across Canada and consulted individual survivors and community leaders since being retained to lead the litigation in 2016.
They are now in a “public-sharing” period, Bouchard noted, saying that the questions and concerns that have been raised are part of how the process is supposed to work.
Bouchard says Gowling is “fully committed and resourced” to meet the needs of class-action members who eventually file for compensation. He also mentioned that there is an extension process provided in the proposed settlement agreement in which claimants can apply for an extension once they’ve begun filing their claim.
“It’s really intended to minimize the burden on the class members,” he said.
Gowling has set up a call centre to help process claims and provide the counsel they’ve been certified to offer as part of the class action. The firm has offices in major cities across the country but lacks locations in the Maritimes, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Nunavut.
As for Gowling’s compensation?
“Let’s be clear on this, legal fees and costs would be covered separately from any compensation claimants receive,” Bouchard said. “What these fees cover, including all of the work that’s been done to date, is the work that’s being done to support claimants through the claims process.”
The federal government covers the fees upon court approval, he added. “Ultimately, what this means is that people shouldn’t have to spend any money out of their own pockets to make a claim.”
Still, many are questioning the compensation the firm is seeking as part of the proposed settlement.
According to Namagoose, “$55 million will be going to them. It’s unconscionable that this law firm will be receiving this amount of money.”
Going forward, Namagoose hopes that those seeking to intervene in the settlement will have their voices heard during the May hearings. “We’ve asked for permission to intervene,” he said. “Hopefully we get permission and then we’ll let the court and the judge know the flaws we see in the agreement.”