Skip to main content

Edmund Metatawabin, 66, a survivor of St. Anne's residential school in Fort Albany, Ont., is seen outside Osgoode Hall in Toronto on Tuesday, December 17, 2013. Metatawabin remembers being placed in an electric chair at the school.Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

The survivors of one of the country's most notorious aboriginal residential schools are demanding that Justice Department lawyers who withheld evidence of their abuse be removed from compensation hearings.

Edmund Metatawabin, the co-ordinator of the Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin Association, which represents former students of St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., has written to Mayo Moran, the chair of the committee that oversees the secretariat which is assessing claims of abuse at the now-closed institutions.

Mr. Metatawabin says in the letter to Ms. Moran: "We do not trust the Department of Justice lawyers and we have a decision of the court that puts their motives and/or competence into question. Why should survivors have to allow them into their private hearings?"

The hearings, which are being held under what is known as the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), are part of the settlement agreement signed between the school survivors, the government and the churches that ran the schools.

The IAP is supposed to be a non-adversarial process in which former students are compensated based on the extent of sexual and serious physical abuse they suffered. But Mr. Metatawabin says the Justice Department lawyers have been adversarial from the start.

A lengthy investigation of St. Anne's conducted by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in the 1990s resulted in charges against seven former staff members. The federal government was in possession of about 7,000 documents related to that investigation that it did not share with the school survivors, yet Justice lawyers told the IAP in 2008 there were no known incidents of sexual abuse at the Fort Albany school.

In January, Justice Paul Perell of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice said the federal government had failed the St. Anne's students with respect to its disclosure obligations. He ruled that it must share with the school survivors all of the OPP documents in its possession and must search out and disclose those it does not have.

In addition to sexual and physical abuse, children who attended St. Anne's reported being electrocuted in a homemade electric chair.

Mr. Metatawabin wrote in his letter to Ms. Moran that "pretending to not know about the perpetrators could not have been human error" on the part of the Justice Department lawyers. It "had to have been deliberate and many people must have been involved," he wrote.

"In the IAP hearings, survivors tell us that the lawyers for Canada are attacking payments for the physical abuse and the wide range of horrific acts against the children of St. Anne's," Mr. Metatawabin wrote. "The lawyers beat down our claims and minimize what happened to us, and they prolong their jobs" by allowing IAP cases to drag out.

Mr. Metatawabin wrote a similar letter in February to Justice Minister Peter MacKay demanding the removal of the department's lawyers from the IAP process. That did not result in action.

Department officials said in an e-mail on Thursday that Justice lawyers "will continue" to ensure that claimants are properly compensated and to protect the integrity of the process.

There were 487 applications for compensation submitted to the secretariat from St. Anne's students, 40 of which were deemed inadmissible. Of the rest, about 180 have been completed and the remainder are in various stages of the process. Just six of the cases that have been decided so far have resulted in no compensation award.

But Mr. Metatawabin said in an interview that some people may have been given less than they deserved because there was no evidence to back their claims.

Charlie Angus, the New Democrat MP who represents the region in which St. Anne's is located, said Thursday that is shocking that the government is being accused of creating a false narrative for the school survivors.

"These are children who were horrifically abused," said Mr. Angus, "and, in court, they are being challenged and [Justice] lawyers seem to be in an extremely adversarial position, even suppressing evidence."