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Canada Settles $2 Billion Suit Over ‘Cultural Genocide’ at Residential Schools

The class action, brought by 325 First Nations, said that residential schools, sanctioned by the government, eroded Indigenous cultures and languages.

The Kamloops Residential Indian School in British Columbia, where evidence was found in 2021 of the remains of former students in unmarked graves. [Amber Bracken for The New York Times]

Canada said on Saturday that it had agreed to pay 2.8 billion Canadian dollars, about $2 billion, to settle the latest in a series of lawsuits seeking reparations for the harm done to Indigenous people through a system of mandatory residential schools that a national commission called “cultural genocide.”

The new settlement, which must still be approved by a court, resolves a class action brought in 2012 by 325 First Nations that sought compensation for the erosion of their cultures and languages.

Thousands of Indigenous students educated at about 130 residential schools from the 19th century through the 1990s were forbidden, sometimes through coercive violence, from speaking their ancestral languages and practicing their traditions.

Indigenous children were sometimes taken from their families by force and sent to the schools, which were largely run by churches.

In 2021, Canadians were shocked by evidence of unmarked graves containing the remains of 215 former students on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Evidence of the graves was discovered using ground penetrating radar. Subsequent searches at other onetime schools have found similar possible burial sites. Thousands of students are believed to have died at the schools from disease, malnutrition, neglect, accidents, fires and violence.

Stuffed toys tied to a fence in honor of the 215 likely remains discovered near the Kamloops Residential School. [Amber Bracken for The New York Times]

If the new agreement is approved, it will be the fifth major legal settlement related to the schools since a 2006 agreement provided compensation to former students and established a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission examined the educational system, heard testimony from former students and issued a long list of recommendations that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to fully implement. With the latest agreement, the government will have provided a total of about 10 billion Canadian dollars in restitution.

“The residential school settlement left a lot of unfinished business,” Marc Miller, the Indigenous relations minister, said in an interview referring to the 2006 agreement. “One part of that was the very legitimate argument by the plaintiff was that there was a collective type of damage to language, culture and heritage and that devastation that was caused by successive government policies.”

The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, which announced the discovery of the likely remains at the Kamloops Indian Residential School site in 2021, was among the parties to the current lawsuit.

“Canada spent over 100 years trying to destroy our languages and cultures through residential schools,” Kúkpi7, or Chief, Rosanne Casimir of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc said in a statement. “It is going to take incredible efforts by our nations to restore our languages and culture — this settlement gives nations the resources and tools needed to make a good start.”

Under the agreement, the government will place the settlement into a trust fund that Indigenous communities can use for educational, cultural and language programs. It will also be used to develop projects to support former students and help them in “reconnecting with their heritage,” the government said in a statement.

Looking at historical photographs from the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan in 2021. [Amber Bracken for The New York Times]

The full agreement will be released later. The Federal Court of Canada is scheduled to hold a hearing in late February, where it is expected to approve the settlement.

While the government settled part of the lawsuit in 2021, the main part of the case had been scheduled to go to trial. Mr. Miller, the Indigenous relations minister, said the government decided last fall, however, that it was better to negotiate a settlement than go to court and have the arguments play out in an “adversarial surrounding.”

“Get around the table, figure out how we move forward and figure out how we put in place financial resources,” he said of the federal cabinet’s thinking behind the decision. “Not that they can completely replace the harm that was done — far from it.”


(c) 2023, The New York Times


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