Class Action

Class-action filed on behalf of former day school students

By Peter Small, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor

Alberta Indigenous rights litigator Leighton Grey has filed an application to certify a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Indigenous day students who claim to have suffered negligence and abuse at a denominational day school five decades ago.

Several former elementary and middle-school students report having permanent scars, hearing loss and other physical injuries from being abused, says Grey, a senior partner with Grey Wowk Spencer LLP.

“But there’s also a great deal of emotional trauma,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com. “Many suffer from things like loss of self-esteem, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts.”

The Indian Day School system was active across Canada from approximately 1884 to 1996, according to a summary of the facts provided by Grey Wowk Spencer LLP. Various religious denominations operated the schools on behalf of the federal government.

The passage of the British North America Act in 1867 and the Indian Act in 1876 required the government to educate Aboriginal people and integrate them into society.

“The idea of educating Indigenous children at that time was that they had to be assimilated and socially acculturated to the dominant white culture,” Grey says.

Around 1964, the federal government ceased operating a day school on the Kehewin Cree Nation in Alberta, about 2.5 hours northeast of Edmonton. Subsequently, he says the government delegated the children’s education to the province of Alberta, which decided to bus them to a church-affiliated day school in a town near the reserve.

Grey says this continued until 1975 when a new school was built on the reserve.

Former Indigenous students have recently come forward with accounts of abuse at the school, including beating with rods, rulers or straps, prolonged isolation, public whippings, pulling earlobes, cutting their hair as a means of shaming and devaluing Aboriginal culture, as well as verbal, emotional and sexual abuse, according to the summary.

The children were forced to speak French, a language alien to them, and to participate in Christian prayers, Grey says.

“They also had the additional indignity of being exposed to racism within the school itself because, according to the stories that have come forth, they were mixed in with a white majority and many of these kids were not very pleased about having native kids in their school,” he says.

Moreover, the Indigenous children were subjected to segregation as well as treatment and discipline that was different from that of the Caucasian students, according to the claim.

Warning signs and written complaints about their treatment were ignored, Grey says.

For two decades, Grey has acted for more than 200 clients in the Independent Assessment Process established under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and is now working on newer claims that allege Indigenous people received inadequate hospital care.

As part of its outreach to First Nations communities, Grey’s law firm visited Kehewin Cree Nation and heard about the day school.

“We had people coming forward that were continuously asking us about this other school that they attended. And the story was not yet known, or at least it wasn’t known to us,” he says. “That led us on a bit of an odyssey.”

Grey and his colleagues researched the allegations and developed a legal claim that turned into a class-action lawsuit as more people came forward. So far more than 110, most of them middle-aged or older, have joined.

Claimants consist of former students and their family members, including grandparents and grandchildren. As with residential schools, much of the trauma is intergenerational, Grey says.

The lawsuit names the governments of Canada and Alberta as defendants, as well as the overseers or operators of the day school, which have not yet filed statements of defence, he says.

Grey says the claimants are seeking general, punitive and exemplary damages, as well as special damages for family members who incurred expenses caring for the former students.

The stories of mistreatment are coming forward now because none of the claimants previously understood that the abuse they suffered was something for which they could be compensated, he says.

“And there’s a culture of fear that they just felt that they have to keep quiet,” Grey says.

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