Cree man sues for alleged abuse in 1970s Winnipeg boarding home

A Cree man says he was beaten, locked in a closet and called racist and derogatory names while in the care of a Winnipeg boarding home in the 1970s, according to a new lawsuit filed against the federal government.

Charles Aaron Cochrane alleges abuse at the hands of the woman who ran the boarding home where he lived as a foster child began at age three, and lasted for years.

"It still hurts me till this day," Cochrane said in an interview. "It's a lot of memories I try to forget, but I can't."

Cochrane claims the woman hit him with a wooden spoon on the arm, back and head.

"Sometimes … I could see stars. I blacked out. They didn't phone the ambulance, or send me to the hospital, or anything. They just left me like that," he said.

Those beatings left the now 52-year-old with long-term damage, according to a statement of claim filed against the Attorney General of Canada with the Court of Queen's Bench on Oct. 15. 

They didn't phone the ambulance, or send me to the hospital, or anything. They just left me. - Charles Cochrane

"She hit him in the head to the point that he was left with a calloused bump to the head, which remains to this day," the document said.

Cochrane said his caregiver made him eat raw liver and at other times wouldn't feed him anything.

"I thought fine, if you want me to starve, I'll go through the garbage then," Cochrane said. "That's what I was doing: Eating garbage."

The court documents argue the federal government did not take proper steps to monitor or assess the boarding home it placed him in.

"Nobody ever came to see me," Cochrane said.

Trevor Brine/CBC

The abuse eventually ended when Cochrane was nine years old. During a rare visit to his aunt's house, she noticed bruises on his face, he alleges. She complained and he was removed from the home to be placed with relatives.

The federal government has yet to file a defence to Cochrane's lawsuit.

Missing information of child's past

Cochrane's lawsuit alleges the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs took him from his family in Fisher River Cree Nation, located about 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg, when he was three years old.

He still doesn't know why he was apprehended, who took him, or the full name of the caregiver he said abused him. He doesn't know exactly where the Winnipeg boarding home was located and can only recall that it was near the Assiniboia Downs race track.

"I used to go across to look at the horses," he said.

He said there were five other Indigenous children in the home who were all under the care of the same woman.

No provincial records

This is the second time Cochrane has sought damages for the ill treatment he received as a child.

In May 2012, Cochrane launched a similar lawsuit against the provincial government of Manitoba and its Child and Family Services, but that case was adjourned this fall — more than seven years later — after government lawyers argued Cochrane wasn't a ward of the province, but the federal government.

In that case, Child and Family Services said that Cochrane's name and that of his siblings did not exist in any of their records. Cochrane said he was never given any documents detailing his care.

Incomplete records were common for Indigenous children taken from their communities at the time, according to Cora Morgan, Manitoba's First Nations Family Advocate.

"It's possible that they don't have appropriate documentation of where he came from," Morgan said.

Common story for Sixties Scoop survivors, says advocate

"It's all in line with the Sixties Scoop," she said. "Cars would enter into a First Nation community or planes would fly in, and they would just take children playing."

"Even people in their 30s and 40s, to be able to get your history in the child welfare system is very nearly impossible," she said.

"There were children that were just completely forgotten and no one looked in on them."

Trevor Brine/CBC

Mistreatment tragic, shameful: Federal government

A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs said it cannot comment on the allegations since the case is before the courts.

"The mistreatment of Indigenous children is a tragic and shameful part of Canada's history. The Government of Canada is deeply committed to advancing reconciliation and healing," Stephanie Palma wrote in an emailed statement.

In his lawsuit, Cochrane is seeking special and general damages, along with past and current health insurance costs.

To this day, Cochrane suffers from physical scarring, nightmares, sleep disorders, panic attacks and overwhelming sadness and anger, according to the lawsuit.

He hopes the lawsuit will shed light on what happened to him and others, while providing answers to his questions.

"It still bothers me," he said. "To this day, I wish I knew who took me."