A private Christian boys residential school near Edmonton, renowned for its tough discipline,
has been sued by a former student for alleged physical and mental torture
during and after a wilderness trip more than a quarter-century ago.
statement of claim against Saint John's School of Alberta, officially known
as The Company of the Cross, was filed Thursday at Court of Queen's Bench
in Calgary on behalf of Jeffrey Richard Birkin, 39.
Birkin, who now
resides in Duncan, B.C., alleges in the 14-page document he "was
forcefully exposed to experiences on the trip that put his life, health and
safety at risk."
The 10-day trip, which
began on Sept. 2, 1976 -- the day after the then
13-year-old boy arrived at the school near Stony Plain, 30 kilometres west of Edmonton -- was comprised of a
100-kilometre hike through steep mountain passes and a 500-kilometre canoe
trip through some of the most treacherous parts of the North Saskatchewan River.
Calgary lawyer Vaughn
Marshall, who represents Birkin and is renowned for handling institutional
abuse cases, said Friday he could not comment on the claim as he was still
in the process of serving the document on the defendants.
Peter Jackson, the
school's business administrator, said Friday he had just received a copy of
the claim and had not had an opportunity to read it.
"I don't think
I'll be able to do anything until Monday, until we have referred it to a
lawyer," he said. "It's new to me.
school has changed since that time (of the allegations)."
Marshall, asked to reply to Jackson's comments that the school no
longer operates the same way it did in the 1970s, replied: "I hope
included in the statement of claim have not been proven in court.
It is not the first
major claim of negligence against Saint John's School, which has an
enrolment of about 130 students and 30 staff and is located on 110 hectares
of bush, park and farmland.
A 15-year-old boy,
sued the school for $1.7 million in 1996 after he lost nine toes to
frostbite on a winter camping trip.
He sustained his
injuries during a four-day, 50-kilometre snowshoe and dogsled expedition,
under the supervision of the school's teachers, in which temperatures
dropped to -28 C.
Saint John's, which at
one time also operated schools in Selkirk, Man., and just north of Toronto
-- now both defunct -- was involved in what is believed to have been the
worst boating accident in Canadian history.
Twelve students and
one teacher died when their canoe capsized on Lake Temiskaming in Ontario on June 11, 1978.
Another boy died from
hypothermia during a snowshoeing trip in the 1970s in Manitoba.
Birkin's claim accuses the school of
failure to make an assessment on his or other boys' physical, emotional or
medical condition or capacity for such a physically arduous undertaking and
provided no preparation or conditioning program.
states that the defendant's putting his life at risk by forcing him as a
13-year-old boy, untrained, unprepared and unsuitable to participate in the
dangerous and unsafe physical activities of the wilderness trip, such as
the long and arduous canoe trip often through treacherous waters, as well
as its other conduct and treatment of him, amounted to a callous and wanton
disregard of his safety and well-being and of his civil rights and a
betrayal of his trust," the claim alleges.
The claim says the
school's staff picked on and encouraged other students to pick on the weak,
subjecting Birkin to "public ridicule, contempt, humiliation,
degradation and sadistic and verbal abuse."
Birkin spent 10 days
in Stony Plain Hospital following the trip, suffering from ulcers on his
feet and legs and blistering on his thighs.
According to hospital
records, the claim says, when Birkin was admitted he had a large bruised
area and linear marks on his buttocks which he told a doctor had come from
being beaten with a stick to make him hike faster.
He claims that while
he was on the canoe portion of the trip, when he was exhausted and unable
to keep up with the five other student paddlers, he was repeatedly struck
in the lower back with a heavy wooden paddle.
The continued abuse
and terror, he alleges, caused him to lapse in and out of a dissociative
state. He alleges he still suffers numerous physical, emotional and
interpersonal problems as a result.
He was returned to the
school following the hospitalization and the abuse allegedly continued, but
he was unable to contact his parents as radios and phone calls were not
permitted. He thought about running away but feared he would be beaten if
captured by staff.
Birkin says his parents
knew nothing of the abuse until he wrote a series of desperate letters
begging them to take him home. By late October, they agreed to remove him
from the school and he never returned.
suffered repressed memory syndrome caused by the trauma the staff members
of the defendant caused to the plaintiff during his enrolment at the
school," alleges the claim.
memory of the beatings, abuse and neglect he suffered at the hands of the
staff members of the defendant . . . were repressed from the time he left
school on Oct. 31, 1976, at age 13, and did not enter his conscious
awareness until Feb. 16, 2001, and thereafter.
first learning the contents of his case history report, his repressed
memories of what happened during his enrolment started coming back,"
the claim says.
The lawsuit says
Birkin was and remains a person under a disability caused solely by the
abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the defendant and its staff members
and, as a result, the operation of any limitation period is suspended.
According to president
and headmaster Keith McKay's message on its Web site, the school emphasizes
religious studies, work experience and outdoor leadership.
"Each student is
greatly challenged by Saint John's. They are often the 'best years,'
according to our alumni," he says. "Students learn that there are
consequences for all actions and that they must learn to be responsible for
those actions and face the consequences. Saint John's builds character,
develops personality and talent, and encourages the individual."
Ted Byfield, a co-founder of the school
near Winnipeg named after the Anglican cathedral out of whose youth program
it emerged in 1962, and publisher of the Alberta Report magazine, wrote in
an Oct. 21, 1996, column that discipline was the most traditional of all
the school's rules.
enforced with a flat stick across the seat of the pants -- failure to
complete assignment, four swats; late for a work detail, three swats;
caught smoking, six swats," he wrote.
what would follow over the next three decades, it was barbarous. Compared
with what had gone before, over the previous two to three millennia of
human history, it was unremarkable."
He said by the changes
seen in the students, the school believed it was working and that
essentially boys were being turned into men during their tenure at the
In an interview with
Don Hill on CBC radio's Tapestry program in the 1990s, Byfield agreed he would be arrested
today if such harsh discipline was meted out to children.