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Survivors of residential school in Saskatchewan file proposed class-action lawsuit

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WHITECAP, Sask. - Survivors of a residential school that housed Métis children in Saskatchewan say they are seeking justice through a proposed class-action lawsuit against the federal and provincial governments.

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WHITECAP, Sask. – Survivors of a residential school that housed Métis children in Saskatchewan say they are seeking justice through a proposed class-action lawsuit against the federal and provincial governments.

The Île-à-la-Crosse Residential Boarding School opened in the 1820s and operated for more than 100 years in the northern village. It burned down in the 1970s.

“All we asked was to be treated fairly as survivors,” said Louis Gardiner, who began attending the school when he was five years old.

Survivors of a residential school that housed Metis children in Saskatchewan attend a media event in Whitecap, Sask., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. The survivors have filed a proposed class-action lawsuit for harms suffered in the institution. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kelly Malone

A statement of claim was filed in December in Court of King’s Bench in Saskatoon by Gardiner, three other survivors and two family members of survivors.

Survivors said they are suing the governments for the roles they played in operating the school and for breaching legal duties to care for them.

No statements of defence have been filed. The province said in an email that as the matter is before the court, it is unable to comment at this time.

Gardiner endured psychological, physical and sexual abuse while attending the Île-à-la-Crosse school from 1961 to 1969, the statement of claim said.

He told a news conference Tuesday that he was identified at the school by a number, not his name. He said survivors of the school also experienced a loss of culture and language.

“If we were caught speaking our language, the strap was there.”

Île-à-la-Crosse is a Métis community and people largely spoke Cree and Michif. Children from neighbouring Dene communities were also sent to the school.

The lawsuit says Margaret Aubichon, another plaintiff, also experienced abuse and that she became ashamed of herself and of being a Métis person.

Other survivors in the statement of claim also spoke about being taken from their families and filled with fear. The statement also said they were malnourished and uncared for.

Survivors of the Île-à-la-Crosse Residential Boarding School were not included in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The school was determined not to qualify because the Roman Catholic Church ran it through the Sisters of Charity and Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

However, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan Vice-President Michelle LeClair said it’s clear both levels of government were involved in the institution. The statement of claim said the province also engaged in coercive practices, including withholding family allowances to ensure Métis kids went to the school.

A memorandum of understanding was signed with Ottawa in 2019, but the group said discussions weren’t successful.

LeClair said she hopes the lawsuit will bring both levels of government back to the table to find a solution.

“The harm is tremendous,” she said.

A separate proposed class action on behalf of Île-à-la-Crosse School survivors was filed in 2005 through Regina lawyer Tony Merchant’s firm but it was never certified.

The Île-à-la-Crosse Boarding School Steering Committee and Métis Nation of Saskatchewan, along with the current plaintiffs, are working with the Toronto-based Waddell Phillips law firm to pursue the new class action.

Nicolas Moquin, a spokesman for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, said addressing historical claims related to abuse committed against Indigenous children is a crucial step toward renewing relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

He noted that the federal and Saskatchewan governments received the previous statement of claim from different counsel.

Moquin said the department is hopeful that counsel for the two different claims will be able to resolve which law firm will represent the plaintiffs quickly. He said the province will play a key part in the process.

“Given the Province of Saskatchewan’s role in the operation of this school, the Province will be an essential part of any path to resolution,” he said in an email.

Île-à-la-Crosse Mayor Duane Favel said the boarding school caused the same intergenerational trauma as other residential schools. Time is of the essence, he said. At least 20 survivors have died in the last year.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that we are still struggling to get recognized as a Métis residential school,” Favel said.

He said they are hopeful because Ottawa has also reached settlements for day scholars, who were forced to attend institutions during the day but went home at night, and those who were in boarding homes.

Île-à-la-Crosse was the site of one of the oldest Roman Catholic missions in Western Canada and around 1,500 students attended the school over the century it was run. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report said the school was plagued by health problems and food shortages.

The report said deaths of children, such as a four-year-old in 1875, led some families to accuse the Oblates and Sisters of Charity of negligence and being too harsh in disciplining the children.

“When you put it into context, over 100 years and six to seven generations of harm are in that school,” said LeClair.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2023.

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