Native suit reaches top court
B.C. residential school case could set national precedent
By TARA BRAUTIGAN / The Canadian Press
TORONTO - The first civil lawsuit in Canada to seek redress for years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at a native residential school will go before the country's top court Monday after nearly a decade of legal wrangling between Ottawa and the First Nations community.
Former students of the Port Alberni Indian Residential School in British Columbia launched the suit in 1997, seeking compensation for the emotional and physical scars left by decades of sexual and physical torment at the hands of their instructors.
The Supreme Court of Canada's decision is expected to establish the standard by which similar cases still before the courts, involving the Anglican, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, will be measured, experts say.
"It's extremely significant," said Sharon Thira, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.
"We feel that a lot of the compensation that we've seen has not been up to par with what other Canadians receive who have been sexually abused chronically. We would like to see some parity."
In June 1998, Justice Donald Brenner ruled that both the United Church of Canada and the federal government were equally responsible for abuse at the Port Alberni school, which was run by church clergy.
But in December 2003, the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned that decision, ruling that Ottawa should be held wholly responsible for compensating aboriginal students who were berated, beaten and molested during their time at the school. The federal government appealed that ruling, questioning the court's rationale that because the church was a non-profit, charitable organization, it shouldn't be held legally accountable for the actions of its employees.
"There's a larger principle at issue," said Nicole Dauz, spokeswoman with Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada, a federal government department set up to deal with the issue of residential school abuse.
"If you look at the number of non-profit organizations in Canada who have children in their care, it would be very important to ensure that there is exposure to liability."
Dauz said the federal government wants the United Church of Canada to share liability to the claimants, though it's not clear how Ottawa would split the cost. The government currently pays 70 per cent in out-of-court settlements arising from the Port Alberni abuse, with the church paying the balance.
Should the Supreme Court side with the plaintiffs, it could jeopardize the government's existing liability agreements with the Anglican and Presbyterian Churches of Canada in other cases of residential-school abuse, Dauz said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, meanwhile, are expected to argue today that the level of compensation as it stands is inadequate and should be increased.
Victims of the Port Alberni abuse have received as little as $10,000, a sum that stands in stark contrast to compensation that ranges from $150,000 to $500,000 for victims in other chronic abuse cases, Thira said.
"We just want to make sure that survivors get compensated fairly according to Canadian law."
Part of the problem, she said, is that under Canadian law, only physical and sexual abuse are considered serious enough to merit restitution, leaving out the range of emotional, verbal and cultural abuse that students also suffered.
Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has said Ottawa's appeal has delayed justice unnecessarily for aging survivor claimants - many of whom are 60 years of age and older - and denied it entirely to those abuse victims who have already died.
The Supreme Court of Canada's decision is expected within six to nine months.
Former Indian Affairs minister Jane Stewart apologized in 1998 for the rampant abuse and suppression of native languages and cultures at the schools. The United Church of Canada also apologized that same year for its role in running the institutions and for the pain and suffering that ensued.
A wave of lawsuits against Ottawa followed, most of which are currently before various provincial courts. Roughly 12,000 surviving plaintiffs are suing for compensation. Church officials are named in nearly 80 per cent of the cases, according to federal statistics.
The schools were established before Confederation in an effort to "Christianize" native populations.
In 1874, Ottawa started running the network of schools in partnership with churches to help aboriginals assimilate into mainstream Canadian society. The federal government accepted full responsibility for the schools in 1969.
About 100,000 children between 4 and 18 years of age attended residential schools, many of them against their will, in every province and territory except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
Most were shut down in the 1970s. The last closed in Saskatchewan in 1996.
Here's a chance for the secularists to lobby the Canadian Govt to make the churches fully responsible for abuse litigation. It should't be too difficult given that it's in their best interest, at least monitarily. I'd like to see how much people toss into the collection plates when they know their money is going to support physical and sexual abuse at the educational level. Though I think a sharp decline would be wishful thinking as most tithers likely give blindly anyway