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Representative plaintiff in the proposed lawsuit, Sphenia Jones, is pictured on the steps of the Court of King's Bench of Alberta in Calgary on April 22. She attended the Edmonton Indian Residential School in the 1950s.Louis Oliver/The Globe and Mail

A proposed class-action lawsuit filed by a residential-school survivor against a priest and entities associated with the Catholic Church will move forward after a Calgary judge struck down a motion to dismiss the case on Monday.

Sphenia Jones, a 79-year-old elder of the Haida Nation in British Columbia who attended the Edmonton Indian Residential School in the 1950s, is the representative plaintiff in the proposed lawsuit. It names Rev. Marcin Mironiuk as a defendant. He is accused of making defamatory statements about residential-school survivors in 2021 and causing harm to their reputations by denying reports of unmarked graves.

Also named as defendants are the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, which placed Father Mironiuk on indefinite administrative leave after calling his comments “thoroughly unacceptable,” and the Oblate Fathers of Assumption Province.

The defendants presented arguments Monday to strike the claim, a procedural option available if a party believes the case has no merit. Justice James Farrington, in a same-day decision, said he is satisfied the claim has a “reasonable chance of success and completes the basics.”

A statement of claim filed in July, 2023, details how Father Mironiuk made a number of statements in Polish regarding the discovery of grave sites at residential schools and repeatedly described it as “lies” and “manipulation,” and claimed Indigenous children died of natural causes. He made his remarks after the discovery of unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Paul Morrison, legal counsel for the defendants, argued that there is “no basis” that a reasonable, objective person would consider his comments in relation to Ms. Jones. He also argued that the proposed class of “residential-school survivors who have spoken out about deaths” was poorly defined and questioned whether the claim could constitute group defamation.

Justice Farrington did note concerns over how “spoken out” will be interpreted but said that is an issue for the class-action certification hearing.

Meanwhile, Max Faille, a lawyer representing Ms. Jones, said it is “cruelly naive” to suggest that parishioners and other people who heard the words of Father Mironiuk would not be “potentially inclined to believe them.” He said the group described in the claim is to whom Father Mironiuk’s comments were directed.

Mr. Faille, who practises Indigenous law and constitutional litigation, said Ms. Jones initiated the class action on behalf of all residential-school survivors who “have had the courage to speak about their experiences and their knowledge of what happened at residential schools, including the horrific number of deaths of children.”

He said, in an interview, that the law “does recognize that a group can be defamed.”

Raymond Frogner: Residential-school denialism doesn’t stand up to reality

Ms. Jones, ahead of the court hearing on Monday, said there are few survivors alive today to testify to the abuse that happened at residential schools. She said she had her fingernails ripped out, was hit with sticks and witnessed the death of other children.

“She saw where they were buried, along the fence – an area now overgrown with trees,” the claim states.

“My grandfather’s telling me to stand up and be proud, so that’s what I’m doing,” she said on the steps of the Calgary court. “This is my way,” she said, pausing, her voice breaking. “My way of saving our children.”

In a statement on behalf of Father Mironiuk and the Oblates, Father Marcin Serwin said Father Mironiuk has acknowledged he made statements about the residential-school site in Kamloops but that he did not question the existence of graves or intend to cause harm to those who attended residential schools.

The statement also said Father Mironiuk acknowledged the school had a hurtful reality for some of its attendees and he lamented any loss of life, adding the Assumption Province echoes these sentiments and both parties regret the matter is before the courts despite their apologies.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton said it cannot comment as the case is before the courts.

The statement of claim details how Ms. Jones was forced from her community of Haida Gwaii to Edmonton at the age of 11 on a train that she said stopped multiple times to pick up other children – some of whom did not survive the journey. The church has discounted the experiences of survivors, Ms. Jones said Monday.

“I’m here to say it’s true,” she said.

Residential-school survivors have spoken out about present-day denialism of their experiences – an issue documented in the preliminary report by Kimberly Murray, the independent special interlocutor on missing children, unmarked graves and burial sites.

Ms. Murray is expected to release her final findings this spring.

In the federal budget tabled in Parliament last week, Ottawa proposed spending $5-million over three years, starting in 2025-26, for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada to establish a program to “combat residential school denialism.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said Monday that survivors have expressed that denialism is “deeply hurtful.”

“When people deny that this happened, it really does retraumatize and reignites the hurt that people already have,” he said, adding both religious and political leaders need to be unequivocal in supporting Indigenous people who have gone through this experience.

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