Dec 4/97: Abused natives seek $1 billion


The Vancouver Province
Thursday, December 4, 1997, Page A3
Suzanne Fournier

[Please note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only. -- S.I.S.I.S.]

Survivors of abuse at native residential schools in BC are looking for an estimated $1 Billion in damages. The money would come from civil lawsuits filed on behalf of an estimated 2,000 survivors of residential schools and their families. The lawsuits would be part of an international strategy that views BC as "the most favorable climate for large-scale class-action lawsuits," the First Nations Summit, representing most on reserve chiefs of BC's 196 Indian Bands, heard at a meeting in North Vancouver yesterday.

Each survivor could get up to $500,000, according to a legal opinion by Vancouver lawyer Karim Ramji of Slater, Vecchio. There are about 125 living victims from each of the 16 BC schools. "This would mean that the lawsuit for each school would be approximately $62,500,000, and for all 16 schools, this would amount to a lawsuit of close to $1 billion," said Ramji. "This has the potential to become the largest lawsuit in the history of Canada." No class action suit based on residential-school abuse has been filed in BC. But 49 individual lawsuits have been filed stemming from abuse at the schools, run in BC from 1858 to 1984 by churches under contract to the federal government.

Vancouver lawyers David Klein, who conducts class-action suits, and David Paterson, who yesterday filed 18 of the civil suits, confirm BC courts in similar non-native sexual abuse cases have awarded damages between $400,000 and $600,000. "Class-action suits are a definite option," confirmed Tl'atzen Grand Chief Ed John, a lawyer and summit spokesman. "Because of the magnitude of this issue, we've always said our primary focus will be on seeking redress for individuals, who suffered not only criminal acts like sexual assault but also cultural assimilation, as well as bringing abusers to justice in criminal courts."

Not all the victims or leaders favor class-action suits. And Klein warns it could be difficult for victims of any one school to be certified as a class, because "each individual would have to prove specific harm by the same cause." He believes the suits seeking damages from Ottawa and the churches have a good chance of succeeding: "There is no question these people deserve compensation. But individual lawsuits may be just as productive and the awards certainly would be no higher in a class-action suit." The summit has endorsed an international strategy on Indian residential schools that calls for lawsuits also to be filed in the US and Australia, where there were similar residential schools. It is being spearheaded by Phil Lane, a US born Dakota Sioux filmmaker and activist now based in Lethbridge, Alta.

Lane has enlisted the help of Texas lawyer Sylvia Demarest, who just won $119.6 million for 11 non-natives molested by a Catholic priest. It is the largest judgement ever in a clergy sexual-molestation case in the US. Demarest, who will meet with BC chiefs in two weeks, said she is "astonished at the scope of abuse in these boarding schools. It could require a team of attorneys, as well as a social-medical team." "I'd be glad to act in whatever capacity the First Nations would like me to in this issue." Lane said the campaign is not intended to discredit religion but to rehabilitate aboriginal people. "Jesus didn't tell people to stick pins through the tongues of aboriginal children who spoke their language, and he didn't tell priests to molest helpless children away from home," said Lane.

"But the government and the churches should have (known), and in many cases did know, what was happening, and they must be held responsible. We need the court awards to start healing, because we don't have adequate therapy, addiction treatment, child care or education."


Victims of residential schools are tired of waiting. "We've waited 30 years to see what our leaders would do - we've already gone through the hell of the criminal courts and now we need support for our lawsuit, to keep up our strength," said Willie Blackwater, spokesman for 26 men who go to court in Nanaimo on Feb. 2. "One of us already has committed suicide and three others are at high-risk - this is very traumatic process for our men, and very few have access to therapy for them or their families.

"We need our political leaders to get behind the court cases that are already under way instead of spending money on expensive legal opinions and 'international strategies.'" Blackwater, 42, a Gitksan father and Langara student, was sexually assaulted and beaten at Alberni Indian Residential School by Arthur Plint, now 78. Plint was convicted in 1995 and 1997 of assaulting more than 30 aboriginal boys aged six to 13 from 1948 to 1968 [The school was run by the United Church of Canada - S.I.S.I.S.].

Lawyer David Paterson yesterday filed suit in Nanaimo against Ottawa, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Victoria and three religious orders in relation to sexual abuse of 18 men and women at the Kuper Island school. Rod Robinson, a 57-year old former Haisla chief and RCMP officer, is part of a third group of lawsuits being handled by lawyer Allan Donavan. Robinson was sexually abused by Plint at the Alberni school, where he was sent in 1948 at the age of eight. "Plint was very, very cruel and he not only sexually assaulted me, he'd brutally beat me, too," said Robinson. "I kept that secret inside me for 45 years. I became a very, very violent man, not to my family but I had to prove myself to other men.

My daughter asked me why I didn't tell them," said Robinson, breaking down in tears. "I'm still not ready to sit down with my four children, as much as I love them. It's just too painful. "That's why I can't wait to go to court. I want to help my children and people I've harmed."

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