, churches flooded with new lawsuits
By ALANNA MITCHELL
Globe and Mail
March 03, 1999
-- 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
law will cut off their chances to make
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.
'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.
are serious claims born of a system designed to marginalize the first
," said Vaughn Marshall, a
lawyer who has spent more than a year
putting the lawsuits together.
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
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
them to live in squalor.
plaintiffs range in age from their late 20s to their 90s. At the schools' peak,
in 1946, there were 76 in
. Most were closed in the 1970s. The
government estimates that about 200,000 pupils went through the residential
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
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
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
may be exploiting a situation that requires the
"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
support cannot be
Tuesday, March 2, 1999