[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]
OTTAWA (CP) - There have been so many lawsuits filed against Ottawa for sexual and physical abuse at Indian residential schools that the federal government is looking at settling with victims instead of fighting them in court.
Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart acknowledged Monday that she is searching for "a more humane way" of dealing with the lawsuits in light of the growing number of victims who have filed civil suits in recent months.
"We're in conversation with the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations as well as the Department of Justice to see if there isn't another approach to dealing with the issues of compensation..." Stewart said in an interview.
An Indian Affairs official said there are now more than 1,000 outstanding civil lawsuits on the federal books - up from about 200 this time last year - and there's no end in sight as publicity grows over the plight of Indians at the government-sponsored schools.
Any settlement would be separate from a $350-million healing fund that the government announced in January as the centrepiece of its response to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
That fund will go to communities - not individuals - for such things as healing centres and counseling initiatives.
Until now, the government has maintained that any individual compensation should be sought through the courts.
But Stewart has been under pressure from victims and aboriginal leaders to come up with a more compassionate way of dealing with lawsuits that have been filed across the country, mainly in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.
Stewart did not specify what she has in mind as an alternative to court battles, but she suggested the government is looking at everything from out-of-court mediation to compensation.
The royal commission report, released in late 1996, included more than 50 pages on the horrific experiences of natives in residential schools, which the report said were set up to assimilate Indians into white culture.
The schools, sponsored by government and run by churches, existed in every province but Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick until the last ones were shut down in the 1980s.
The Indian Affairs Department estimates more than 100,000 Indian children attended the schools, which means one out of every 100 former students have already filed abuse lawsuits.
The government has settled almost 200, mainly in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, for an undisclosed amount. Settlements have been mainly tied to cases in which abusers have already been criminally convicted.
Vancouver lawyer David Paterson, who represents former students suing for damages, has said some settlements have reached as high as $400,000.
The federal government held a news conference Monday announcing the board of directors to oversee the healing fund while calls persisted for a companion compensation package for individuals.
"It's still not enough," Marilyn Buffalo, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said of the fund that is not expected to kick in before the end of the year.
Phil Fontaine, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he's confident after meeting with government officials that they are ready to stop fighting victims in court.
"A court process is adversarial and a lot of people have been damaged by their experience," said Fontaine, himself of victim of sexual and physical abuse at a Manitoba school.
"There has to be an alternative process to the courts. We've had discussions with government about that option and we've had a positive reaction."