It was described as a “double dagger to the heart” when former residential school students from Newfoundland and Labrador were shut out of a national apology in 2008.
They’re to be included at last when the prime minister visits Labrador on Nov. 24, his office confirmed Friday.
Justin Trudeau will be in Goose Bay to offer an apology that will be crafted with input from those abused in the now defunct schools.
“The vast majority of our clients are just happy that finally they’re going to be recognized as having gone through the same trauma,” said Steven Cooper, a lawyer for several plaintiffs who sued for compensation.
It was a devastating step backward when aboriginal students from four residential schools in Labrador and one in northern Newfoundland were excluded from then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008, Cooper said.
Cooper said the event is still in the planning stages but is expected to include at least 300 people.
About 1,000 class-action members accepted a $50-million package last year from the Trudeau government to settle claims of sexual and physical abuse along with language and cultural losses.
Harper left out Newfoundland and Labrador’s former residential schools from his apology and a related compensation package. His Conservative government argued they weren’t “akin” to institutions established under the federal Indian Act and therefore didn’t qualify.
Cooper called the exclusion “a double dagger to the heart” that left many of his clients feeling abandoned and disbelieved.
He was among lawyers who argued over a nine-year legal battle that Ottawa owed the same duty of care to those students once the province joined Confederation in 1949. More than 100 class members died waiting for a resolution and to hear someone say they’re sorry.
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Danny Pottle, who lived in a Labrador school dormitory in North West River, said last year an apology was more important than any cash settlement.
“I think those experiences have to be validated by Prime Minister Trudeau on behalf of everybody in Canada,” he said in an interview. “To me, that’s the most important thing, and that’s what other people have told me all along.
The $50-million settlement was approved by a judge in September 2016. Aboriginal students who attended the schools after the province joined Confederation in 1949 were eligible to apply for compensation so long as they were alive as of Nov. 23, 2006 – one year before litigation began. The estates of those who died since the 2006 cutoff could also apply.
Students who lived in school residences for less than five years were eligible for $15,000 in general compensation, while those who lived there five years or more could receive $20,000. Approval was based on a streamlined, trust-based application process overseen by a judge.
One in 10 applications are to be randomly audited.
Cooper said Friday that about 965 people applied for general compensation and that cheques went out in June.
Compensation for sexual or significant physical abuse, based on sworn testimony, could be up to $200,000. Those matters are expected to wrap up this month, Cooper said.
The schools were located in North West River, Cartwright, Nain and Makkovik – all in Labrador – and in St. Anthony, in northern Newfoundland. The International Grenfell Association ran three of the schools, while the Germany-based Moravian missionaries ran the other two.
Lawyers from three firms who worked on nine applications over most of a decade were to receive about one-third of the $50-million settlement. Several students who attended a related briefing last year in St. John’s said it was fair payment.
“It’s the most important case I’ll ever work on, and I’m 54 and 30 years in as a lawyer,” Cooper said.
“It’s so important for survivors in these situations, I’ve learned over the years, to be heard and believed.”