Lawyers warned not to take advantage of vulnerable native residential school survivors

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor

The huge legal settlement negotiated for thousands of former students of native residential schools is becoming more clouded by questions.

Generations of aboriginal children were taken from their parents and sent to residential schools, often run by churches, in a misguided effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. Many were physically and sexually abused. Many of those who weren't also returned home with broken cultural connections and psychological scars that did long-lasting damage.

The federal government has apologized for the residential schools program and reached an agreement in 2007 to make payments to former students.

But now some say they are being mistreated by the lawyers who were supposed to help them claim compensation.

CBC News reports the National Residential School Survivors' Society, representing about 32,000 former students, is asking provincial law societies to step up discipline of lawyers who allegedly take advantage of their clients.

"We get complaints regarding lawyers—lawyers cherry-picking certain cases, only taking cases which are lucrative, and denying the little people," society spokesman Ed Quewezance told reporters Thursday in Winnipeg.

He said some lawyers are taking money for services they then don't provide and some are billing more than they're entitled to get.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement gives former students $10,000 for their first year at the school, plus $3,000 for each subsequent year. It also provides additional compensation from a $1.9-billion pool to those who suffered serious sexual or physical abuse, or abuse that caused psychological damage.

CBC said lawyers receive 15 per cent of the award as a fee but can charge clients up to 15 per cent more.

One Winnipeg lawyer has already been suspended by the Law Society of Manitoba over allegations he took more money in fees than he was entitled to receive, the Law Times reported on its news blog.

Howard Tennenhouse faces a hearing before the society over complaints related to 50 of his residential school clients.

The lawyer acting as chief adjudicator of the Independent Assessment Process for serious abuse complaints is warning lawyers to "tread carefully," the Vancouver Sun reported.

"Claimants are vulnerable people," Daniel Ish said after the B.C. Supreme Court ordered an investigation into the Calgary law firm of Blott & Company, for allegedly mishandling the compensation awards of some clients.

"They've been through the residential school system and [have] been taken advantage of in their young lives. To take advantage of the most vulnerable in society [now] is abominable."

Ish said the court-ordered probe should be a wake-up call to the roughly 200 lawyers representing former students claiming compensation for serious abuse.

The National Residential School Survivors' Society also wants a judicial review of the entire $5-billion agreement, which would mean the parties would have to go back to court to reopen the deal, the Winnipeg Free Press reported.

The society, a coalition of survivor groups, claims it has compiled 460 complaints going back five years on the way settlement funds were paid out, how claimants were treated and how mechanisms relating to the role of survivors have failed.

"The settlement agreement is an out-of-court settlement that is to be monitored by the courts," society chairman Ray Mason said in the Free Press.

"Yet each day we have survivors complaining about the treatment by a consortium of lawyers, the role of Canada, lost records, information not provided, adjudicators not respecting our culture or language. Why is the court not taking responsibility?"

But Ottawa is balking at any attempt to revisit the settlement.

"The [agreement] is a court-approved and court-monitored class-action settlement of all [native residential school] claims across Canada and does not include a requirement for an independent review," a media spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development told the Free Press.