Former Kivalliq Hall students scored a major victory last week after the Nunavut Court of Appeal upheld a ruling requiring the federal government to pay out compensation for its role in running the school.
“It makes me feel like we're finally treated equally and the same as any other Canadian citizen,” said former student Simeon Mikkungwak
The case has been ongoing since 2013 when Mikkungwak brought forward his claim on behalf of himself and other students with the support of Nunavut Tungavik Inc. (NTI) that Kivalliq Hall was a residential school.
Kivalliq Hall was run as a boarding home for students attending high school in Rankin Inlet between 1985 and 1995.
Residential school survivors have been eligible for common experience payments ever since the federal government settled the largest class action suit in Canadian history with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
The Kivalliq Hall court case was originally settled in Mikkungwak's favour in 2016 but the federal government appealed the decision.
Mikkungwak is hailing the recent verdict as a milestone. However he remains cautious because the federal government might still seek to challenge the case in the Supreme Court.
“When you look at the six year stretch it's all from the government of Canada's side to really prolong this,” said Mikkungwak, who was been the MLA for Baker Lake for the past five years. “If they were smart after two court rulings they wouldn't appeal. But you never know with the government of Canada.”
The federal government argued Kivalliq Hall students should not be eligible for compensation as the school was run by the Northwest Territories, before Nunavut became a territory, and not Canada.
In the court's ruling, which was made public on July 20, the three judges presiding over the appeal upheld the original ruling that this fact did not absolve the federal government.
According to the accepted facts of the case, the government funded the entire construction costs as well as some of the operating costs of Kivalliq Hall.
At the time, the territory was governed by a federally appointed commissioner.
In the original ruling the court found that the testimony of NTI and Mikkungwak was more convincing as the the federal government lawyers', “knowledge of the historical relationship between Canada and the NWT is not deep.”
Ever since the ruling, Mikkungwak said he has received an outpouring of support from other former students for bringing forward the case on their behalf.
“After that ruling, the phone and the computer messages have been nonstop,” he said.
If the Nunavut Court of Appeal decision holds up, Kivalliq Hall students will be eligible for $10,000 for the first year in attendance and $3,000 for every subsequent year. Anyone who experienced abuse or harsh treatment can also apply for additional compensation.
Matthew Dillon-Leitch, spokesperson for Crown Indigenous Relations, said his office was reviewing the court's ruling.
“We are committed to providing a fair, comprehensive, and lasting resolution to address this dark chapter of Canada’s history,” stated Dillon-Leitch in an email.
Mikkungwak made it very clear that he suffered no abuse and received a good education at Kivalliq Hall. He also has little use for the money, he said.
However, he knows some residential school children who faced terrible conditions.
More than anything, Mikkungwak said he is passionate about winning the case a matter of principle. Now it's just a matter of waiting to see if the federal government wants to keep up the fight, he said.
“I guess we're all waiting for it because it will validate that we're treated equally.”