Deal coming on residential schools--chief.
During a one-on-one interview with Windspeaker on May 12 in Edmonton, the national chief was confident that the federal government would soon announce a dramatic shift in the way it has been dealing with residential school compensation.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed. We are very optimistic that cabinet will make a decision next week," he said. "And when they do, they will accept the essential elements of the AFN proposal as the way forward. Our proposition calls for finality, to finish all of this by 2010 as opposed to what we face right now, a minimum 20 to 30 years to resolve at considerable cost."
There's clearly something going on in Ottawa on this front. Mainstream media reports that a deal was imminent, usually focusing on the amount of money that would be paid out rather than the injustice that might soon be addressed, appeared on several occasions in early May, quoting unnamed but senior government sources.
But as of press time, late May 18, the day before the vote on the federal budget that would decide the fate of the Paul Martin government, no announcement had been made.
Ottawa sources confirmed that talks were continuing at a feverish pace and speculation was rife that the announcement would come. But the federal Liberals were somewhat distracted at the time, seeking to shore up support that would ensure they could avoid losing the budget vote and be forced into calling an election.
When former Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to join the Liberals just two days before the vote, the attention of senior government officials was distracted away from residential school compensation.
But Fontaine said "intense negotiations that we've been involved in for the last few months with all kinds of twists and turns" have led to a preliminary agreement that is awaiting final cabinet approval. He said the federal government was prepared to accept most elements of the plan the Assembly of First Nations' blue ribbon panel of law professors and judges released last November.
Under the plan, every person who attended residential school would receive a lump sum payment of $10,000, plus $3,000 per year attended. An apology would be made by the government of Canada for the assimilationist thinking behind the policy. A truth commission would be established so that Canadians will learn more about the wrong perpetrated in their name by their government--and so the survivors will have a voice.
Fontaine said the AFN staff members working on this issue have moved the government a long way from its original position.
"I believe we've been very successful. When we started our negotiations we were dealing with a program and an initiative that was largely immovable. The government was convinced that this was the most appropriate way to resolve these many claims," he said. "The federal government, what they were offering former residential school students was unworkable. It could never achieve fair and just compensation. It was never about reconciliation. It was a rigid tort approach. It was like an insurance claim settlement, very heavy on validation. So we weren't surprised when they decided to allocate $5 million to hire private investigators to search out persons of interest when they knew that the average age of the residential school students was 57. Most of the persons of interest are dead. That was the starting point and since then we have been able to move them to a point where we are so close to a deal. We're now very, very close to a deal."
Under its present approach, the federal government has arbitrarily decided it will not compensate for language and culture loss. In her 1998 apology, then Indian Affairs minister Jane Stewart admitted only that the government was sorry that physical and sexual abuse occurred in the schools. The government has fought against any attempt to claim compensation for loss of language and culture, but many legal observers say recent court decisions can only be interpreted to mean that it's inevitable that the government will eventually lose that fight.
On the day of Windspeaker's interview with the national chief, the efforts by the government to stop certification of the Cloud class action case, where a number of residential school survivors are suing for loss of language and culture, among other things, were rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Fontaine has been pushed by survivors to demand an apology from the prime minister on the floor of the House of Commons, something the Japanese-Canadians who were interned during the Second World War received during Brian Mulroney's time. He said he believes the government is willing to make that very symbolic move.
"This is what we've pushed for," he said.
Fontaine said the current government approach would limit the number of former students who will be compensated to between 14,000 and 26,000. Under the AFN plan, he said, 100 per cent of the approximately 87,000 living former students will be compensated.
Each of those 87,000 people will receive an average amount of $28,000.
Those involved in the alternative dispute resolution process or engaged in a court action will not be affected, Phil Fontaine said.
But it would be a bitter thing for the former students to get this close only to have the plan scuttled should the Liberals fall. Fontaine said his staff had been working to prevent that from happening.
"We can't see this coming unglued. We believe that once cabinet makes its decision next week, it's a decision that will not be reversed.
"Taking the issue for what it is and the need for reconciliation and the need to bring closure, it's essentially a non-partisan issue that compels all parties in Parliament to join with us and support whatever deal gets struck between the federal government and us," he said.
One issue that may cause some controversy, should the announcement eventually be made, is who will be responsible for distributing the money to the survivors. Fontaine said the AFN will take on that task.
"It's a big issue for us. I've made the point to a number of people, including the consortium of lawyers, that on this issue we've done the heavy lifting, the Assembly of First Nations, on behalf of the 87,000 students still alive. We've come to the goal line and we want to be able to carry the ball across the goal line. We don't want to lose control of this," he said.
"People should have no fear. We have good experience. We have good models we can use."
Windspeaker asked if the government of Canada would finally explicitly acknowledge the language and culture loss suffered by so many of the former students.
"That's part of the lump sum payment," Fontaine replied.
Fontaine said people would not be able to accept the lump sum payment and then commence litigation for language and culture loss. They will be asked to sign waivers, agreeing not to sue in return for the money they receive.
"We're still working on details of the release," the national chief said.
And no one will be forced to accept the payment.
But, the national chief was clearly confident that an announcement would soon be made and some peace and closure will be available to the former students.
"We believe, if everything goes through, it's going to be one of the largest settlements of its kind in Canadian history," he said.
By Paul Barnsley
Windspeaker Staff Writer
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2005|
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