Indigenous adults who were taken from their families between the 1960s and 1980s hope an agreement in principle reached with Ottawa will halt the practice of separating Aboriginal children from their communities, language and culture.
Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel, who was placed in the foster system as a child only to suffer emotional, physical and sexual abuse, said Friday she has "great hope" now a deal has been reached with the federal government including up to $750-million in compensation for victims.
At 54, she said she's still working to heal from childhood trauma.
"People ask me 'How did you survive?"' she said. "I don't know ... I could not bring myself to addiction because I was suicidal. I knew that if I ever drank, if I ever did drugs, that I would kill myself."
In February, the Ontario Superior Court found the government liable for the harm caused by what is known as the '60s Scoop. Brown Martel was the representative plaintiff.
"I have great hope that because we've reached this plateau that this again will never, ever happen in Canada again," Brown Martel said Friday as she stood beside Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on Parliament Hill as the settlement was announced.
At the same time, she warned, Indigenous children are still subject to the "millennium scoop."
"Children are still within the child welfare system," she said later in an interview. "Our children need to come home."
Bennett fought back tears Friday as she announced details of the deal, a package that also includes up to $50-million for a foundation for healing and reconciliation.
Compensation will go to individuals classified as status Indians and Inuit while the federal government has also earmarked $75-million for legal fees.
Only individuals affected can determine whether the settlement meets their needs, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in a statement.
"The courts of Canada can never compensate, in any amount, the loss of family, community, identity, language and culture," he said. "True justice means creating hope and opportunity for the survivors."
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation — an umbrella organization representing 49 communities in northern Ontario — said she is pleased to see the government has "finally been held accountable" for the devastating legacy of the '60s Scoop.
"We pray this settlement will help the plaintiffs and all Canadians on the journey towards healing and reconciliation," she said.
The '60s Scoop was a dark and painful chapter in Canada's history, Bennett said Friday.
"Their stories are heartbreaking," Bennett said. "They talked of their identity being stolen. They talked about not really feeling that you belong anywhere because people have been moved so often or that they didn't really have a home."
Too many Indigenous children are still being taken from their families, she added, insisting Ottawa must change the current design of the system to ensure funding goes toward children, family and communities rather than lawyers, agencies and non-Indigenous foster families.
"We want that overhaul to happen so that we a system of the rights and well-being of Indigenous children and youth to be raised in their language and culture and not have this harm done that was done to these courageous people," she said.
The agreement is a "first step" in resolving '60s Scoop litigation, Bennett added, noting the federal government is committed to working with other Indigenous Peoples affected.
The provinces and territories are also working on resolving remaining litigation, she said, adding individual compensation will be determined among legal counsel.
Ottawa says the compensation payments will not affect its bottom line because the fiscal framework already contains an envelope of money set aside for litigation settlements.
The agreement in principle announced Friday is less than the $1.3-billion Brown Martel sought for victims of the Ontario Scoop, in which at-risk, on-reserve Indigenous children were placed in non-Aboriginal homes from 1965 to 1984 under terms of a federal-provincial agreement.
In a class action started in 2009, Brown Martel maintained the government had been negligent in protecting her and about 16,000 other on-reserve children from the lasting harm suffered from being alienated from their heritage.
Jeffery Wilson, one of her lawyers, said previously the class action was the first anywhere to recognize the importance of a person's cultural heritage and the individual harm caused when it is lost.
—With files from Colin Perkel