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Proposed settlement reached for Ahiarmiut relocation

A proposed settlement worth $5 million has been reached between the Ahiarmiut Relocation Society and the Government of Canada.

The deal was announced by Ahiarmiut Relocation Society legal counsel Steven L. Cooper on Aug. 27.

Attorneys Steven L. Cooper, left, and Patrick Smith highlight the work of legal firm Cooper Regal during the 2017 Kivalliq Trade Show in Rankin Inlet. Cooper is the legal counsel for the Ahiarmiut Relocation Society, which announced it had reached a settlement agreement with the Government of Canada this past week. Darrell Greer/NNSL photo

The claim was originally filed against the federal government in 2008 by the society, which represents the interests of all Ahiarmiut who traditionally lived around Ennadai Lake.

The Ahiarmiut who lived in that area were forcibly relocated by the Government of Canada on various pretenses between 1949 and 1959, including commercial and administrative programs.

The relocation resulted in great hardship and the deaths of members of the group.

There were 62 original relocatees, including very young children and babies, some of whom never made it out of childhood.

When the claim was filed in 2008, there were 27 central beneficiaries from the original 62 represented, of which 21 remain alive today.

A meeting was held in Arviat (where the majority of the group resides) on Aug. 20 to explain the proposed settlement, seek comment and answer questions from society members.

The more than 100 society members who attended the meeting cheered the result, with the settlement being approved by the society's board of directors.

Cooper said after it was filed in 2008, the claim sat on the back burner for the next 10 years because of an abeyance agreement, freezing everything so the plaintiff doesn't have to worry about the claim being derailed by the passage of time or other sources.

He said during the freeze, the society spent years trying to get the Government of Canada to talk to it productively, but nothing was happening.

"Then, about three years ago, we entered into an exploratory table, which was an opportunity for the government and the Ahiarmiut to sit down and talk about how this could be solved without any commitment on the part of the government to do so," said Cooper.

"We met very regularly during the following years – either by phone or in-person – to talk about what a settlement could look like that would be acceptable to the Ahiarmiut.

"This past June we progressed to the next stage, which doesn't always happen in these cases, and the government proposed a settlement.

"Negotiations took place on the initial settlement proposal and finally an agreement was entered into draft form – something more than an agreement in principle but less than a full settlement agreement."

Cooper said the entire group – including the original relocatees and their immediate descendants – consists of less than 200 people.

He said there was universal acceptance of the settlement draft at the Arviat meeting, and he was shocked to find there were literally no questions asked after he had described the proposal to the group.

"The proposal is quite straightforward on how the funds are going to be distributed, which is ultimately up to the society and hasn't been entirely decided yet.

"This is a bit of a unique situation in the sense that the Government of Canada, for a variety of good reasons, has opted to simply make the payment and allow the group to decide how best to distribute it.

"Part of that derives from the fact that all of the other settlements they've dealt with of this nature, other than the High Arctic exiles, for one example, usually had them dealing with bands.

"First Nations have bands – a recognized legal authority with a chief and council set up – but here we're dealing with a society that doesn't have the same structure, so each of the central beneficiaries signed an authority giving the board the right to accept or reject so that the government is dealing with one group rather than almost 200 individuals."

Cooper said the society is set to sign the formal final version of the settlement this week.

He said every I has been dotted and every T crossed, so now it should be just a matter of tracking down the government's authorized signatory.

"Our best guess is that it will be sometime in October when the funds are actually distributed, but it's important to note that it's out of our hands because we're dealing with a signatory about whom I know nothing, although I do get the sense they've chosen somebody far enough up the hierarchy to have the authority, yet far enough down to be accessible.

"I have met with, or spoken with, every member of the surviving 21, including one who now lives in the United States, and they're all so happy that this fight is finally over.

"There is a substantial portion of money – more than $1 million – set aside for education and commemoration and the society board will have to decide how that's spent.

"I've been doing this type of work for 30 years and the money comes and goes, but the significance of the settlements are always an acknowledgment of a historical injustice and, ultimately, an apology.

"The money is transient and short lived, whereas the acknowledgment, education, commemoration and apology are what survive the settlement."