A historic class action lawsuit by people who attended Indian Residential Schools as “day scholars” has begun to spread across Canada, bringing the total to 76 bands alleging widespread abuse.
Only a day after British Columbia's Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and Sechelt First Nations filed their case against the federal government on behalf of survivors and their descendents who were excluded from full compensation under a 2006 abuse settlement, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) added its name to the lawsuit.
“The Indian Day Scholar survivors suffered the same injustices as the Indian Residential School survivors,” said FSIN Vice Chief Dutch Lerat in a statement. “Many of them suffered abuse and a loss of language and culture. We estimate there are more than 4,000 Indian Day Scholar survivors in Saskatchewan waiting for past wrongs to be righted.”
Representing 74 First Nations in the prairie province, the Saskatchewan group's addition suggests that many more could join the case against Canada's nearly 160 Residential Schools, which operated from the 1870s through 1996.
But more than simply demanding compensation for sexual, physical and emotional abuse reported in the schools—which was already available to day scholars under the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA)—this lawsuit demands unspecified damages based on daytime students' “common experiences” of suffering, which is compensation that residents received.
The class action case alleges that the schools served as an intentional means of destroying Native culture, amounting to genocide, said Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs President Stewart Phillip. They thus paved the way for the “exploitation of those lands and resources by Canada,” according to court filings.
According to the federal government, the 2006 settlement agreement was the result of negotiations with claimants and First Nations leadership, and therefore it is not obligated to compensate non-residential students.
“It was a government assertion at that time that they didn't suffer the same as residential school survivors,” said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. “Whether a day scholar or resident, students received similar sorts of abuses, deep trauma and physical harm. [The IRSSA] could never fully provide for complete justice for the wrongs that our people have had committed against them—for our experience in the residential schools, for the loss of our land, and the taking away of our wealth and resources.”
One of the band leaders initiating the lawsuit said the Canadian government had refused to address the issue of day scholars when approached, and therefore a lawsuit seeking “punitive and aggravated damages” was the last resort.
“There are numerous times that Sechelt and Kamloops have contacted Canada to do the right thing,” said Chief Garry Feschuk, head of the Sechelt Indian Band. “There was enough money in the first settlement to resolve the day scholar issue, but they rejected us. We sent another letter to the Prime Minister asking him to do the right thing; again, we were rejected. So our only alternative now is to fight them, and that's what we're going to do.”
And while Feschuk lamented that “all the wounds came to the surface again,” an event celebrating the lawsuit's launch in Tsleil-Waututh First Nation revealed both pain, and the hope for justice.
“We're very excited about the opportunity of seeking seeking redress for our people,” said Chief Shane Gottfriedson, leader of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. “I know it's going to be a challenging process; but being a real Indian, what is ever easy for us? Everything that we've tried to do throughout our history has always been a fight. We're not into talking about anything anymore.”
The court documents filed by plaintiff lawyers argue that Canada showed “wanton and reckless disregard” for indigenous children and severed “aboriginal people from their cultures, traditions and ultimately their lands and resources.”