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Politics Ottawa spent more than $2.3-million fighting claims by survivors of most notorious residential school

The federal government has spent more than $2.3-million over the past five years fighting legal cases related to the claims for compensation lodged by survivors of one of the country’s most notorious residential schools.

The amount was disclosed in an answer to a question put to the government by New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, whose Northern Ontario riding includes Fort Albany, where St. Anne’s Residential School was operated by a Roman Catholic order between 1904 and 1973.

According to the federal response, the federal departments of Justice and and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada spent $2,313,944.52 between Jan. 1, 2013, and May 9, 2018, to handle settled cases, deal with requests for direction and take part in proceedings where former students of the school went to court to fight for compensation under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

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St. Anne’s, where children were forced to eat their own vomit, were whipped with wire straps and were tortured in a homemade electric chair, was the subject of a five-year probe by the Ontario Provincial Police in the 1990s, in which allegations were made against 20 different priests, nuns and laypeople. Five people were eventually convicted, three of them on charges of “indecent assault.”

“This is shocking, how much money the government is willing to spend to silence and intimidate the survivors of some of the most horrific child abuse and torture ever documented in Canada,” Mr. Angus said in a telephone interview. “This government has used every legal tactic, put up every possible road block … and to what end. All these survivors are asking for is the right to justice in fair hearings.”

Toronto lawyer Margaret Waddell, who has recently acted on behalf of St. Anne’s claimants, said she is not surprised by the dollar amount because there has been a lot of litigation related to the school. But, she said, it is still “an astonishing number.”

Ms. Waddell said she suspects most of the costs were related to the fight launched by lawyer Fay Brunning in 2013 to force the government to turn over documents related to a criminal investigation at the school that would have bolstered the cases of claimants.

A spokesman for Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said the dollar amount provided to Mr. Angus includes the estimated cumulative salaries of the bureaucrats and government lawyers involved in the various cases. It is also important to point out, the spokesman said, that, in the vast majority of cases, the government was the respondent, which means it did not bring the case forward and had no choice but to respond.

In the daily Question Period in the House of Commons, Ms. Bennett said that, although 90 per cent of St. Anne’s students were compensated, a few cases were difficult to settle. “We remain committed,” she said, “to bring closure for all survivors.”

Despite the results of the OPP probe, some of the claims of St. Anne’s survivors were denied by adjudicators of the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), which determined compensation awards after federal officials told the IAP prior to 2013 that there were "no known documents regarding sexual abuse” at the school.

After multiple appearances before the Ontario Superior Court, the previous Conservative government began releasing those documents.

Survivors have begged the government to stop the litigation, Mr. Angus said. “Why this vendetta has gone on this long over such a miscarriage of justice is incomprehensible.”

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