About 600 former Aboriginal students at a pair of Northern Ontario residential schools are now eligible to seek compensation for being ripped from their homes and forced to attend the institutions.
The decision, rendered by Chief Justice Warren Winkler of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, adds Cristal Lake Residential High School and Stirland Lake Residential High School to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, in what Native officials are calling a precedent-setting case that will outline the parameters to add further schools to the list.
The two schools had earlier been rejected by the federal government.
Students who attended the remotely located schools will now be permitted to apply for reparations for the time they spent at them, under the Common Experience Payout program.
The program pays $10,000 to each student for their first year of attendance at the school, and $3,000 for each additional year. Former students also receive an official apology from the institution.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatawabin on Thursday called it a solid victory for both the students who attended Stirland Lake and Cristal Lake residential high schools, as well as First Nations across Canada.
“This landmark decision paves the way for other First Nations people who have been institutionalized to be included in this national settlement and we hope they too will continue to fight for justice,” he said in a release issued through NAN’s communications department.
Several other schools have yet to have a decision rendered about their residential school status. The two Ontario schools are the first in Canada to be added to the IRSSA.
Stirland Lake High School, also known as the Wahbon Bay Academy, was opened in 1971 by Northern Youth Programs Inc., a Mennonite-based organization, in the tiny community, located about 275 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout.
It was funded by Indian Affairs, and could house and educate up to 20 boys at one time. Students lived at the school for 10 months of the year.
Cristal Lake opened five years later, in an equally remote area, and was built to house Aboriginal girls.
The two schools merged in 1986, and the joint operation closed its doors in 1991.
Windigo formally requested the two schools be added to the list of recognized residential schools in October 2007, after a unanimous endorsement by NAN chiefs. The request was rejected the following spring, sending their quest to the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario.
The decision is welcome news for the council chairman of Windigo First Nations council, who spearheaded the court challenge.
“The former students of Stirland Lake and Cristal Lake Residential High Schools will now be able to begin their healing journey through the Common Experience and Independent Assessment processes offered by the IRSSA,” said Frank McKay, Council Chair of Windigo First Nations Council, who spearheaded this court challenge.
Students who were physically or sexually abused may also seek further compensation under the independent assessment process.
Susan Vella the legal counsel for both WIndigo and NAN, said they will help applicants anyway they can.
“We are ready to assist these former students with pursuing their legal rights under the IRSSA. We are grateful to the Court for rectifying the oversight in the IRSSA’s failure to include these schools in the original schedule of Indian residential schools.”