School sued after 26 years

Daryl Slade

Calgary Herald

Pages B1 & 6

Saturday, February 08, 2003

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.

The $3.5-million 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.

"Obviously, the 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 not."

The allegations 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, Matt Riddel , 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.

"The plaintiff 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.

"The plaintiff 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.

"The plaintiff's 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.

"When, after 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.

"Rules were 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.

"Compared with 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 school.

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.

"Absolutely," said Byfield .

(c) Copyright 2003 Calgary Herald

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