09/16/2013 06:48 EDT | Updated 11/16/2013 05:12 EST

Huronia Regional Centre Lawsuit: $35-Million Settlement In Class-Action Suit Over Alleged Abuse

TORONTO - For decades, those who lived at an Ontario institution for the developmentally disabled waited for the province to acknowledge the abuse and neglect they said they endured at the government-run facility.

Now the province has vowed to formally apologize to thousands of former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre, part of a last-minute settlement in a class-action lawsuit into the allegations.

The $35-million settlement, read out in a Toronto court Tuesday morning just as the trial was set to begin, falls short of the $2 billion the plaintiffs sought.

But the money seemed almost an afterthought for many of the plaintiffs, who welcomed what they considered long-overdue recognition of their suffering.

"They should've done that a long time ago. Why did they take 50 years to say that?" said Edgar Riel, who spent six years at the centre he described as his own personal hell.

Patricia Seth, 55, one of the lead plaintiffs, said the apology would help bring closure.

"I'm just elated to... not necessarily put the past at rest but put it on the back burner, because you can never forget something like that," she said.

"We can move forward now, tell our stories. People believe us now."

The settlement is a "very close approximation" of what the plaintiffs would likely have won at trial, said Kirk Baert, who represented Seth and roughly 3,700 others in the suit.

It will also spare former residents from testifying and reliving the abuse they were subjected to for so many years, he said outside court.

"Giving evidence in court is very difficult. You have to sit there and be exposed, you have to be cross-examined by the other side's lawyer, you may or may not end up being believed... and you may not always win," he said.

Some expressed regret, however, that they wouldn't get the chance to finally lay bare the memories that have haunted them since childhood.

"I'm sad because I think they should listen to the stories," said Carrie Ford.

Ford said she arrived at Huronia at age 13 and stayed until she was 28. During that time, she said, staff repeatedly threatened to have her sterilized.

Part of the agreement aims to chronicle what happened at the centre — a grim history some feared would be wiped clean should the case not go to trial.

A commemorative plaque to be placed on the Huronia grounds will allude to the "conditions" at the centre. The cemetery where hundreds of children were buried will be maintained, the names of the dead catalogued.

Researchers will also be allowed to visit the now-closed centre and retrieve artifacts they deem historically important.

The facility opened in 1876 as the Orillia Asylum for Idiots and was operated by the province for 133 years before it shut down in 2009.

The suit alleged residents suffered almost daily humiliation and abuse.

Some said they worked in the fields for little or no money, and recalled being forced to walk around with no pants on as punishment for speaking out of turn.

The suit covered those institutionalized at the centre between 1945 and 2009, many of whom are now aged or dying.

For that reason, "we want to pay the money out as quickly as possible," Baert said.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne would only say she was glad an agreement could be reached.

"There are a number of steps that have to take place before that settlement is finalized so I won’t comment further, but it’s a history that obviously families needed to grapple with and there needed to be some closure on that," she said.

"My hope is the settlement will be finalized and that there will be some closure for those families."

If approved by the court, the agreement will see the money divided based on how much each plaintiff suffered.

Those who were harmed the most will receive more money, while those who choose not to describe what they went through will only be eligible for up to $2,000, Baert said. The maximum individual payout would be $42,000.

Should there be fewer claims than expected, or fewer requiring a larger payout, up to $5 million of the surplus would go to organizations that help people with developmental disabilities, Baert said.

Plaintiffs will be allowed to voice their concerns over the settlement at the approval hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.

Two similar class actions against the province are pending over alleged abuses at the Rideau Regional Centre, in Smith Falls, Ont., and the Southwestern Regional Centre, outside Chatham, Ont.

Baert said he hopes those cases can also be resolved outside court.

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