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Ottawa to start settlement talks with survivors of Newfoundland residential schools

Richard Preston arrives at the Supreme Court in St. John's, November 4, 2015.

Paul Daly

The federal government appears ready to resolve a nine-year legal battle with former students of aboriginal residential schools in Newfoundland-Labrador – the only province left out of the Canadian government's 2008 apology and multibillion-dollar financial settlement over abuses in the schools.

On Tuesday, Justice Department lawyers will begin settlement talks in St. John's with lawyers for an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 former students; Ottawa had been scheduled to start its defence in the $100-million lawsuit on Monday. The government has said that, unlike in other provinces, it had not forced indigenous children in Newfoundland and Labrador to attend residential schools, and that it had not supervised those schools or known of abuses. A key question in the case is whether the federal government had a duty to protect indigenous children in the province.

Retired justice Robert Wells of the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court will help facilitate talks. Nearly 30 former students have testified about physical, emotional and sexual abuse, the only ones to do so in court in a residential-schools lawsuit. The two sides adjourned the case Monday and have until Feb. 29 to report back on their negotiations to Justice Robert Stack of the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court.

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The case had become a thorn in the government's side, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to create a new relationship between Ottawa and indigenous peoples. That relationship has often featured decades-long legal battles over land claims and other issues. Mr. Trudeau had also promised to accept all recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; one of them was to try to settle outstanding litigation over the residential schools.

"I think it shows there's a new approach in Ottawa and that the new government is at least wanting to meet with us to talk, which the old government never was," Kirk Baert, a lawyer for the former students, said in an interview.

Valerie Hache, a spokeswoman for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, who is in charge of the file, was asked why the government had a change of heart. In an e-mail two weeks ago, she said the government believes in working collaboratively with indigenous peoples and, to that end, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has been reviewing the government's litigation strategy.

Former students contacted by The Globe and Mail cheered the news of settlement talks. "I'm starting to get excited, but I'll believe it when I see it," Richard Preston, who is in his late 50s, said from his home in New Brunswick. He spent nine years at the St. Anthony Orphanage and Boarding School in Labrador, beginning at the age of 3. In November, he described in court how children would be lined up in front of belts hanging on the wall, and made to pick out which one would be used on them.

"They never gave me a foundation to grow on," he said. "They never showed any love whatsoever. As far as I was concerned, I was a nobody. They took away from me my feelings, my passion. I don't know what love is. They took everything away from me."

His brother, Bob, also in his 50s, who started at the orphanage at the age of 4, said a settlement would be "recognition of what was done to us. They took away our identity." He said he only learned about five years ago that he is Inuit; he had thought he was Métis.

John Borrows, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, said in an e-mail that negotiation "is the preferred way of addressing Crown/Indigenous disputes. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made this point. The Courts repeatedly say the same thing. The move to negotiation in this case is consistent with these higher principles. It is a good sign for future developments."

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The residential schools were a program of forced assimilation run as a partnership between Ottawa and churches, beginning in the 1880s. Children were barred from speaking aboriginal languages, and were subject to physical and sexual abuse and neglect. The government's position on leaving Newfoundland and Labrador out of the national settlement dates from the time Liberal prime minister Paul Martin was in power in 2005.

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