The Assembly of First Nations is pursuing a class action lawsuit against the federal government for its residential school policies on behalf of all First Nations.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 3, claims that government policies caused “irreparable harm and damage to First Nations’ culture, language, way of life, family, community, and social structures.” It seeks compensation for four classes of survivors: First Nations, Survivor, Deceased, and Family Class.

AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine is named as representative plaintiff for the First Nations Class and Survivor Class.

In a statement Fontaine said that, “The AFN, as the national organization representing all First Nations citizens, including survivors and descendents, is uniquely situated to deal with this issue. [The lawsuit] provides for a more comprehensive process, as it deals with loss of language and culture and not only specific acts of physical or sexual abuse, and also includes truth and reconciliation mechanisms and other collective remedies that will benefit all First Nations.”

The claim supersedes the accord signed by the AFN and Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan on May 30. A federal representative will make recommendations to the government on a new approach before March 31, 2006.

Fontaine explained that litigation is necessary to move beyond consultation and to seek results. “We would rather negotiate than litigate, but we feel compelled to exercise all our options,” said Fontaine. “Each day we lose another survivor. Each day someone passes on without having achieved any sense of justice of healing or redress. Each day, First Nations from all walks of life in all parts of the country deal with the loss of language, cultural breakdown, and inter-generational effects of the schools.”

There are 87,000 residential school survivors, whose average age is 57. The current government process to settle claims will take 53 years to conclude at a taxpayer cost of $2.3 billion. The AFN lawsuit seeks a fair, cost-efficient and timely approach to resolve the issue. The guidelines to reconciliation are outlined in the AFN November 2004 Report on Canada’s Dispute Resolution Plan to Compensate for Abuses in Indian Residential Schools, available on the AFN website.

AFN Communications Advisor Nancy Pine explained the need for an expedient solution. “It was apparent that the AFN was at the table in a consulting position,” Pine said. “The class action suit insures AFN negotiating capacity.”

The process of Alternative Dispute Resolution (AVR) is an option put forward by the government for residential school survivors to seek grievances against the institutions. “AVR was the catalyst for the class action lawsuit,” Pine explained. “The process did not meet the needs of survivors. It is not fair or timely.”

Part of the reasoning behind the November 2004 Report on Canada’s Dispute Resolution Plan to Compensate for Abuses in Indian Residential Schools was to examine flaws within the AVR process and provide recommendations. As yet a policy seeking an apology from the government for residential schools has not been issued. The AVR process, meanwhile, is time-consuming and painful for many survivors who are forced to recall their abuses in front of judge and jury.