Faced with billions of dollars in potential residential school lawsuits, the Canadian government says it’s “digging in its heels” on settling the claims.

Payments to survivors last year amounted tro less than half what was awarded the previous year because the government settled far fewer cases, according to federal figures.

“I think reality has settled in a bit,” said Shawn Tupper, an advisor on residential schools for the Indian Affairs Department.

“It’s not that we’re saying we don’t want to settle. It’s just that it’s getting harder and harder to settle. We’re digging our heels in in that sense.”

So far, all of the out-of-court settlements have gone to victims of men who were criminally convicted of sexual abuse, mainly in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

The first cases to be heard by a judge are now coming up. Lawyers for residential-school survivors expect the courts to order much higher payments than Ottawa has agreed to give until now.

“We expect these damages are so severe in some cases the you will see new ground broken,” said Peter Hutchins, a Vancouver lawyer helping to defend abuse survivors.

Hutchins said students at the former Gordon Residential School in eastern Saskatchewan were ripped off with the small awards they got.

They were the first in Canada to reach settlements for being raped repeatedly by a dorm supervisor, who was later convicted of sexual assault.

“If you take those Gordon school settlements, they were down and dirty, and there was not exploration of the issues. (The government) got out cheaper than they should have. They (the government) will never see those numbers again,” he said.

Settlements so far have ranged from $20,000 to $200,000, depending on the degree of abuse, said Tupper in a National Post story.