A First Nations-run education authority in Northern Ontario is facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for allegedly failing to protect students who lived at one of its boarding facilities from sexual abuse.
Six men from northwestern Ontario are suing Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) for $2-million each for aggravated and punitive damages, including past and future loss of income, as a result of alleged sexual crimes committed against them as young boys in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they left their homes to attend high school in Sioux Lookout. The plaintiffs are also seeking the costs of culturally appropriate mental-health treatment.
Jack Wicksey was charged with sexual abuse and exploitation in 2018 over alleged offences when he was a student services worker for NNEC, a position that gave him direct access to and authority over students.
According to the claim, Mr. Wicksey had been charged around 1994 with sexual crimes against a former male student in Sioux Lookout. The victim died by suicide before Mr. Wicksey could stand trial.
The investigation was reopened around 2015 and an arrest warrant was issued in 2017, according to U.S. media reports, for sexual offences against seven former students, including five of the plaintiffs.
Mr. Wicksey, who was 65 when he was arrested in June, 2018, had been living with his wife in a trailer park home in Los Fresnos, Tex., where they owned property, since at least 2016. He was extradited to Ontario, and died in 2020.
The 32-page statement of claim, filed in Thunder Bay Superior Court, argues that NNEC was vicariously liable for Mr. Wicksey’s misconduct because it had control over him and his duties as a staff member and house counsellor.
“The NNEC entrusted Wicksey as its employee with responsibility for the care, supervision, guidance, teaching, and where necessary, discipline of First Nation students, including the plaintiffs, when they were away from home for education purposes,” the claim reads.
NNEC didn’t respond to a request for comment, and a statement of defence hasn’t yet been filed in court.
At the time of the alleged abuse, all six plaintiffs were aged 13 to 15, in Grade 9 and in their first year away from home. They either boarded at one of the several houses at the boarding facility, Pelican Falls Centre, or with a family in Sioux Lookout, where they attended the local Queen Elizabeth District High School.
According to the legal claim, the former students were preyed upon when they were at their most vulnerable, including when they were homesick, coping with parents divorcing and sick family members, or during counselling sessions. They were at times given drugs and alcohol, becoming too intoxicated to remember what occurred, but waking up to physical evidence they had been violated and sodomized.
They say the sexual assaults they endured resulted in feelings of overwhelming guilt and shame along with physical pain that led to alcohol and drug abuse, difficulty sleeping, flashbacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and attempts to end their lives, and inability to trust others, including loved ones.
The Pelican Falls centre – which now has a high school on-site where students continue to board in houses – was the Pelican Falls Indian Residential School before Northern Nishnawbe Education Council took it over in the late 1970s. The Anglican church ran the residential school from 1929 to 1969, and it was one of 139 government- and church-run institutions where thousands of First Nations children and youth were sent, and where many were subjected to sexual, physical and cultural abuse at the hands of staff, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report of 2015.
NNEC sponsors hundreds of secondary and postsecondary students from remote communities to attend high school, college and university away from their homes, where access to equitable education is limited. Most First Nations in the area offer high-school courses only to Grade 10, at which point students must decide whether to leave their homes and communities to obtain a diploma.
Elizabeth Grace, one of two lawyers representing the plaintiffs, calls the case a tragedy, particularly because NNEC is a First Nations-governed organization and is meant to do a better job than the residential schools.
“The sad thing about this is that these kids were the hopes of the next generation and they were survivors of intergenerational trauma because many of their parents had gone to residential school,” Ms. Grace said. “And now they’ve suffered that direct trauma.”
By the summer of 2019, a Sioux Lookout court justice found there was enough evidence for Mr. Wicksey to stand trial on 18 charges related to five of the plaintiffs and two others not included in the lawsuit. Mr. Wicksey died in Thunder Bay hospital of cancer in June, 2020, before he could enter a plea or stand trial, and court documents show the Crown withdrew all charges against him in July, 2020.
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