OTTAWA, Feb 14 (Reuters) - A Canadian court ruled on Tuesday that the government breached its duty of care to thousands of aboriginal children that were removed from their communities over nearly two decades, paving the way for what could be a costly payout from Ottawa.
The class action suit, which was launched eight years ago, sought C$1.3 billion ($994.87 million) on behalf of about 16,000 Ontario aboriginal children who were removed from reserves and placed in non-aboriginal homes from 1965 to 1984 under a federal-provincial agreement.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba ruled that the federal government breached its duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the children from losing their aboriginal identity.
The plaintiffs in the case argued that the children's loss of aboriginal identity caused issues including mental disorders, substance abuse and suicide.
Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett said the government would not appeal the decision and that the government wanted to sit down with survivors by the end of the month to discuss a settlement.
"This is a dark and painful chapter in Canada's history," Bennett told reporters. "It's really important that we get to the table as quickly as possible. We hope that they will come."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, elected over a year ago, made improving Canada's relationship with its natives one of his key election promises.
Canada's aboriginals, who make up about 4 percent of the country's population, experience higher levels of poverty and incarceration and have a lower life expectancy than other Canadians, while they are more often victims of violent crime and addiction.
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, welcomed the court's decision.
"Children have the right to speak their language and stay connected to their heritage," he said in a statement. "Today's decision is a step towards reconciliation."
($1 = 1.3067 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Bill Rigby)