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Métis survivors sue Saskatchewan, Canada over residential school

January 24, 2023

Class-action suit launched over the Île-à-la-Crosse school in northern Saskatchewan after Métis were left out of previous settlements.

Toronto Star: For survivors of one of the oldest residential schools in Canada, it’s been a long time coming.

Métis survivors who attended the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school in northern Saskatchewan have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Saskatchewan and Canadian governments, after having been left out of separate settlements for First Nations and Inuit peoples. 

The lawsuit is on behalf of survivors of the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school and includes students who lived at the school and those who attended the day school. It also includes claims on behalf of family members and surviving spouses. 

For survivors like Louis Gardiner, whom the lawsuit is named after, a settlement would be a long-needed recognition that Métis people suffered the same abuses as others who attended the schools but have not received the same compensation or acknowledgment.

“The survivors who are not with us today, they never had a chance to tell their story. We suffered the same trauma as all residential schools … we couldn’t speak our language. They separated the survivors (by gender) … we couldn’t even go see our sisters,” he said.

According to Michelle LeClair, vice-president of Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, Île-à-la-Crosse is the second oldest community in Western Canada and will turn 250 years old in 2026. The school itself opened in the 1820s and operated for more than 100 years. It’s believed that about 1,500 children attended.

“We see the fact that people have not been acknowledged, but nor has the harm, the generations of harm,” LeClair said.  “Multiple governments, both at the federal and provincial level have been pressed on this issue. And we hear a lot of ‘Ýes, we need to deal with this. They need to be acknowledged.’ But nothing ever seems to happen until we take it to the courts,” she added.

The Métis Nation-Saskatchewan is assisting with the class-action lawsuit financially and also morally, ethically and emotionally, LeClair said. 

Gardiner, who first attended the school at age five, spoke of how he would be punished with “the strap” if he was caught speaking Michif, his first language, and how he was not referred to by his name, but by a number. He also told of how he ran away from the school as a child and was eventually discovered by a search team.  “We lost everything, we lost our language, our culture, our identity,” he said. “And all we ask for is to be treated fairly as survivors.”

Four of the plaintiffs are survivors and two are family members of survivors. The statement of claim was filed on Dec. 27 against both the Saskatchewan and Canadian governments.  So far, no statements of defence have been filed. In November, the Saskatchewan government declined to meet with Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, citing ongoing litigation in relation to the school.

A previous lawsuit on behalf of Île-à-la-Crosse School survivors was filed in 2005 but has not moved forward over the last 17 years, a spokesperson said at a media availability on Tuesday. As part of the new lawsuit, one of the first actions will be to request for the previous lawsuit to be stayed.

Nearly all of the surviving plaintiffs have fired legal representation for the previous lawsuit and are on board with the new one, according to a website set up for the class action. 

The website notes that when the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was signed in 2006, people could request to add schools to the list of those to receive compensation. But the request to add the Île-à-la-Crosse school was denied because the government said the school was run by the Catholic mission, not the government. 

One of the reasons a new class-action lawsuit is moving forward is because the survivors are getting old, stakeholders said. The youngest surviving students are now in their 50s, said Duane Favel, mayor of Île-à-la-Crosse. And it’s believed about 20 survivors died in the last year alone, LeClair said. 

“Time is of the essence,” Favel said.

Favel, who attended the day school, said it seems Métis people are often included in those affected by the legacy of the residential school system, but not in a meaningful way. “We seem to be invited to participate in all the ceremonies in Canada that recognize survivors … My late uncle, Don Favel, was invited to the Harper apology with several other Métis survivors. They still don’t have closure,” Favel said.

Gardiner said he hopes this class-action suit will be more fruitful than the last and that it will succeed in time for survivors to see justice. “I think it’s very important that we need to tackle this together, as one Métis family,” he said.  “We hope that the file can move forward aggressively because a lot of our survivors are getting up there in age and there’s not many of us left. And we need to tell our story.”

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMoslehSHARE: