12/03/2013 11:58 EST | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 EST

Judge approves $35M settlement in class-action suit over alleged abuse

TORONTO - A $35-million settlement will better serve the former residents of an Ontario institution for the developmentally disabled than a long and difficult trial into alleged abuse at the facility, a Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday.

Justice Barbara Conway approved the deal after hearing emotional submissions from former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, Ont., as well as a detailed account of the centre's grim history.

With the plaintiffs growing older and no guarantees of winning at trial, "the benefits of an immediate and certain settlement cannot be overstated," she told the Toronto court.

The agreement, which also calls for the province to formally apologize for what happened at the now-shuttered facility, was signed in September just hours before the case was scheduled to go to trial.

The two lead plaintiffs in the case told the court Tuesday that while no amount of money can erase the years of abuse they suffered as children at the facility, the settlement funds will help ensure former residents of the institution get justice.

"We appreciate the apology, but no amount of money will give us our lives back," said Marie Slark, flanked by her longtime friend and co-plaintiff Patricia Seth.

She raised concerns about the claim process, saying many plaintiffs will need help to fill out forms and navigate the system.

Those fears were repeated as others took the stand. Only a handful opposed the deal, though many more voiced their worries in written statements filed with the court.

Charles Fannon, who spent seven years at Huronia, condemned what he called paltry compensation for what he and his peers suffered.

He also objected to having legal fees paid out from the settlement fund, arguing the province should cover those costs along with those incurred processing the claim.

"Thirty-five million is 35 million and that's what it should be," Fannon said.

Kirk Baert, who represents the plaintiffs, acknowledged the amount fell short of the $2 billion the plaintiffs sought, and that no sum could make up for the abuse and neglect they allegedly endured.

"There's no settlement that I know of that can make us go back in time and make these things not happen," he said.

"We have to look at what is achievable in reality."

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

It alleged residents suffered almost daily humiliation and abuse at the overcrowded facility, which closed in 2009.

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 case's last-minute resolution meant former residents weren't called to testify — a boon for some but a bitter disappointment for those eager to have their experiences come to light.

Some seized their chance Tuesday, recalling painful details of their childhood before a courtroom packed with those who share their harrowing memories of the centre.

"Every time these survivors get together, there are more horrible stories about what happened to them," said Marilyn Dolmage, Slark's litigation guardian.

It's important that all those who were harmed at the facility receive the help they need to access the settlement, she said.

Seth and Slark were both awarded a $15,000 honorarium for shouldering the burden of representing the plaintiffs to the public. However, the money will only be doled out if any funds remain after all other claims have been filled.

Details of the claim process, including wording of the claim form, will be determined at a future hearing, as will the amount to be paid in legal fees and where that money will come from.

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is scheduled to make her formal apology Dec. 9 at the provincial legislature.

Asked what she would like to hear from the premier, Dolmage wouldn't venture any suggestions, saying she wants it to be "from her heart."