Globeandmail.com

Ottawa, churches flooded with new lawsuits


By ALANNA MITCHELL
Globe and Mail
Tuesday,
March 03, 1999
Page 1

 

Calgary -- More than 1,000 native Canadians who were forced to attend residential schools as children have launched multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the federal government and churches over the past several days, spurred on by fears that a new Alberta law will cut off their chances to make claims.  The new Limitations Act came into effect yesterday. It gives a person 10 years to file a civil claim once it is realized that damage has been done. Other provinces allow a limit of 30 years for civil cases.  Some lawyers believe Alberta's new law leaves a two-year window for people to file lawsuits about residential schools, but most who handle such claims have flooded the courts with them over the past several days to make sure they won't be disqualified later.  The firm Ruston Marshall Barristers, for example, filed civil suits on behalf of 362 members of the Blood tribe last Friday. They claim a minimum of $500,000 apiece as compensation for mental distress, loss of education and earning opportunities, and loss of culture.

 

"These are serious claims born of a system designed to marginalize the first nations people of Canada," said Vaughn Marshall, a Calgary lawyer who has spent more than a year putting the lawsuits together.  In the past few days, the number of civil suits against the government and against churches that ran residential schools has risen from about 2,200 to at least 3,500, the Assembly of First Nations said.  Only a tiny fraction of the allegations have been the subject of criminal charges. Most are being dealt with solely through the civil system.  Some of the new suits catalogue a litany of sexual and physical abuse and claim the schools robbed the children of their rights to education. They accuse the government of stealing the children's cultural heritage and  forcing them to live in squalor. 

 

The plaintiffs range in age from their late 20s to their 90s. At the schools' peak, in 1946, there were 76 in Canada. Most were closed in the 1970s. The government estimates that about 200,000 pupils went through the residential school system.  The Merchant Law Group, which handles a huge volume of residential-school civil suits, has filed 700 claims in recent weeks. Its lawyers, unlike those of several other firms, believe any suit not filed by yesterday will lose out under the new act. Tom Stepper said his firm believes the act may be unconstitutional because it limits the rights of aboriginal Canadians to file civil claims.  The suits have raised concern among native leaders who fear that, in the rush to sign up complainants, some lawyers may not be dealing adequately with the emotional trauma that often accompanies such claims. In some cases, the lawyers were simply telling their clients to fill out questionnaires detailing the abuse and then sending them home, a spokeswoman for the Assembly of First Nations said.  Others rented halls and advertised their intent to sue the government on behalf of residential-school survivors.  The situation became so knotty that Phil Fontaine, the Assembly's national chief, sent letters to law societies across the country objecting to the heavy-handed nature of some of the marketing. He himself attended a residential school.  He noted that some survivors of the residential-school system who had filed suits had subsequently committed suicide, and he pleaded for lawyers to be sensitive. From a letter Phil Fontaine sent to law societies across Canada in October, 1998   "First Nations members have drawn attention to three elements which concern me. The first is the aggressive solicitation of clients in some jurisdictions.  "We have heard complaints from survivors that lawyers have rented halls and advertised their services to sue the government or the  churches on a contingency basis. Some lawyers have approached band members who attended the residential schools.  "We have been informed that this tests the boundaries of taste and ethics, even though it may not be illegal. We suggest that while it may be within the letter of the law, this behaviour may be exploiting a situation that requires the utmost sensitivity.  "The choice of some counsel to hold town hall meetings or to send out questionnaires which may require potential plaintiffs to write about painful experiences may place some people at risk.  "There have been residential school plaintiffs who have committed suicide and there are complainants who were questioned by police in regard to criminal investigations into residential schools who have committed suicide.  "The care required to ensure that our people are not re-victimized by processes without counselling support cannot be stressed enough”.

Tuesday, March 2, 1999
ALANNA MITCHELL

Alberta Bureau