The federal government is offering to negotiate a settlement in a class-action lawsuit known as the '60s Scoop case, in which indigenous people say they lost their cultural identity when they were removed as children from their homes on reserves to be placed with non-aboriginal families.
The government announced Wednesday that it is willing to entertain talks to end the long-running court dispute after federal lawyers informed a justice of Ontario's Superior Court that they would not cross-examine two aging First Nations elders who were preparing to testify, and that they had no more evidence to tender.
"I am very proud to say that we are adversaries no more and that negotiation rather than litigation is our government's preferred route to settle these differences and to right historical wrongs," Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told the House of Commons. "That's why our government today is launching negotiations towards a national resolution to the '60s Scoop litigation."
The '60s Scoop is a "dark and painful chapter in our history," Dr. Bennett said. "Resolving these cases is an important step in our journey of reconciliation with indigenous peoples."
The $1.3-billion suit seeks redress for what the plaintiffs say was the government's failure to ensure that, after being taken from their communities by child-welfare authorities, the children were allowed to maintain their traditions and customs and to obtain the benefits that flow to aboriginal people, such as free postsecondary tuition.
Similar suits have been launched in other provinces where the plaintiffs are waiting for the outcome of the Ontario case. The government said it hoped to reach settlements in all of the legal actions.
The Ontario case was launched in 2009 on behalf of Marcia Brown Martel, now the Chief of the Beaverhouse First Nation, who was taken from her community north of North Bay in 1967 when she was four years old and, after years in foster care, was adopted by a white family.
Her lawyers estimate there are about 16,000 other indigenous people in the province who were removed from their homes in similar fashion, under a federal-provincial agreement, between 1965 and 1984.
After seven years of delays, mostly as a result of appeals by Ottawa, the court hearings began in August.
The government's move this week to stop litigation effectively brought the testimony to an end, and Justice Edward Belobaba was expected to announce a date for his ruling next week.
The legal team for Ms. Brown and the other class-action claimants said they found the timing of the government's overture curious and somewhat disconcerting.
While the government is talking about negotiating a settlement, it is pressing ahead with its defence in the case, said Jeffery Wilson, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.
If there is to be a settlement, the government, which has been fighting a legal battle for eight years, must state "that Canada does, and always did, have a duty to protect the cultural identity of indigenous children," Mr. Wilson said later in a statement. "If this is what the minister intends by her statement, we look forward to being part of the reconciliation process."