Ottawa's court delays could keep survivor, 92, from seeing residential school justice, says lawyer

·5 min read
An Anglican church official leans over a child attending St. George's residential school in Lytton, B.C.  The photo was taken in the 1950s. Now, a 92-year-old survivor is fighting the federal government in court for compensation. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation - image credit)
An Anglican church official leans over a child attending St. George's residential school in Lytton, B.C. The photo was taken in the 1950s. Now, a 92-year-old survivor is fighting the federal government in court for compensation. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

In the Federal Court record he's identified only by initials F.E.H, his birth year of 1930, the residential school he attended between 1936 and 1942, and that he was repeatedly sexually abused as a child by three staff members at the institution.

These details form part of a rare ongoing lawsuit filed by the residential school survivor against the federal government. It has unfolded over the past 10 months, and in a recent filing, federal government lawyers questioned whether the survivor actually attended the institution along with his claims of abuse.

Unlike many others, the survivor, now 92, never applied for any compensation for abuse he suffered at St. George's residential school in Lytton, B.C., under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. He also didn't apply for compensation under the provision of the agreement known as Common Experience Payments for the years he attended the institution.

"He was held back by shame," said Karim Ramji, his Vancouver-based lawyer.

"He has finally realized that he has been carrying this very heavy burden for too long and he wants closure."

Ramji said the survivor may have to wait several more months before he sees that.

Federal lawyers, despite initially saying they wanted to deal with the claim "on an expedited basis," instead prolonged the case, seeking at least five filing extensions, said Ramji. They are refusing direct settlement talks and instead requested mediation before a judge which will take more time to arrange, he said.

"There is a likelihood he will end up leaving this world without being relieved of this heavy burden he's been carrying for the last 80 years," said Ramji.

Ramji filed the lawsuit in June 2021, but the federal government only filed its response this past March after questioning the survivor in what's known as an examination for discovery.

"That statement of defence only creates further barriers to get a resolution," said Ramji.

'Burning me for years'

The federal government said in its March filing it can't "admit" the 92 year-old is actually a residential school survivor because officials can't find his name on attendance lists from 1936 and 1942.

The statement of defence said the federal government also can't concede to the abuse the survivor says he suffered because he can't name the staff members who abused him.

"The lack of description or names of the perpetrators or any details that would allow Canada to confirm that Mr. H resided at the school has hindered Canada's ability to respond in a meaningful way," said the statement of defence.

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

CBC News spoke with the survivor over telephone and agreed not to publish his name at his request.

During the conversation, the survivor clearly recounted how he ended up in the residential school. He also spoke about his family history beginning with his great-grandfather to the present day.

He said he still feels anger for what happened to him as a child.

"This has been burning me up for many years…. It is quite a horrible experience. I always thought in my mind as a kid I was going to get even," he said.

The survivor said he lived in constant fear.

"You did what they told you or you would wind up dead. They just throw you around like a sack of potatoes," he said.

"These guys were monsters."

He said he left the institution on his own between 12 and 13 years of age and found work as a labourer at a work camp because of his height.

Searches for unmarked graves at former residential school sites

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WATCH | Archive footage of St. George's residential school, circa 1936:

Survivor's story 'credible'

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller's office said in an emailed statement that the survivor's testimony was "deemed credible and reliable" during the examination for discovery. The statement said that the government is seeking "judicial mediation" to reach a settlement with the survivor.

"We are committed to working collaboratively with plaintiffs not included in the [residential school settlement agreement] to ensure fair compensation," said the statement.

Ramji said the minister's words are "inconsistent" with the written arguments advanced by the federal government in the case.

The federal government has been involved in residential school-related litigation for decades, but their approach has changed little, said Ramji.

"The historical mindset within government dealing with this litigation has evolved very slowly," said Ramji.

"The reliance on, 'Oh we need records' — is a traditional stance taken by the Crown and those don't seem to have changed."

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

Decades-old residential school records could be incomplete, have names spelled wrong or pages missing, said Ramji, an experienced litigator on residential school-related cases.

The available record about Anglican Church-run St George's — contained in the school's historical narrative — reveals physical and sexual violence ran rampant throughout much of the school's history.

Reports dating back to the 1920s include allegations of sexual assaults by staff members on students and between students — evidence of learned behaviour.

In 1934, a report described the punishment of a student who was "blind-folded, grabbed by the legs, administered mustard in his mouth" then held "head down in a pail of water," according to the historical narrative, a document held by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation containing the history of the school.

A report from 1942 said that students caught running away were "chained together and driven home in front of the principal." The institution used "shackles to chain runaways to the bed" and "they also had stocks in the playground" used on children, the narrative said.

"I went through a life of hell," said the 92 year-old survivor.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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