Survivor's court case could win damages for intergenerational harms from residential schools - APTN NewsAPTN News

Survivor’s court case could win damages for intergenerational harms from residential schools


Paul Barnsley
APTN Investigates

As the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) nears completion, a potentially explosive case brought forward by a former national chief is slowly making its way to court.

Del Riley, who occupied the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations’ office from 1980 to 1982 – during the final days of negotiations that led to Aboriginal rights being enshrined in Canada’s newly-repatriated constitution – refused to participate in the IRSSA.

He saw the settlement agreement as too limited – so he hired the London law firm Harrison Pensa to sue the federal government and the Anglican Church of Canada.

Riley aims to expand the scope of the defendants’ liability as he seeks compensation for his time at the Mohawk Indian Residential School in Brantford, Ont.

The statement of claim, filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in London, Ont. in 2010, seeks $4 million in damages for breach of fiduciary duty.

Riley is also seeking to get a court to acknowledge that his children were harmed because of the abuse inflicted on him, something called inter-generational harms, which were excluded from the settlement agreement.

The lawsuit cites the Ontario Family Law Act in claiming damages for Riley’s adult children – Delbert Leonard “Len” Riley Jr. and Melanie Sadie Debassige — for “loss of care, guidance and companionship” from their father due to the psychological harm he suffered as a student.

Even though it may have been called a school in the minds of the government, it wasn’t really a school. It was a prison camp for small children. – Del Riley

Riley alleges he was sexually abused for three years by a dormitory supervisor working for the Anglican Church, which ran the school under an agreement with the federal government.

He decided not to sign on to the IRSSA early on. He thinks too much was bargained away in the settlement agreement. He would have been subject to the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), which governs how former students are compensated for sexual and severe physical abuse.

“I’ve spoken to probably well over 100 people that have gone through the IAP and all they have is nothing but complaints,” he said. “They dealt primarily with three or four abuses. And if you got three or four, you were getting a lot. But as far as I can see, this might be 10 per cent of the part that I’m suing for, and it’s just a small portion of any kind of court settlement. The big part is the breach of fiduciary, and the breach of treaty.”

He acknowledges that having a Canadian judge hear a case where Canada is the defendant has its risks. But he’s going to take the case forward.

“Even though I realize at this point that 30 per cent of our people are sitting in the white man’s jails. So, the worry, I’m on pins and needles. And can I get a fair trial in Canada?” he asked.

Riley believes the government was in no hurry to have his case get to trial.

“This is a whole travesty of justice for me because they put me last. They could have put me first. But here’s what would have happened. Because I’m going to regular court, the items that I’m suing for in the court document are way beyond what they would have allowed you in the IAP. Like they don’t allow you to sue for loss of language, for loss of culture, breach of fiduciary, and a whole host of other things,” he said.

“But the real issue here is, does fiduciary extend to my kids? Because they had a fiduciary responsibility to me, because of the racist Indian Act and all of the restrictions and things they imposed on First Nations people under the Indian Act. And the legal obligation I had to go to this school. So I’m saying that, and it’s my legal advice as well from legal people, that, yeah, fiduciary extends to my children too. As it should to all of the children across Canada who had parents that went to residential schools.”

Riley believes the government took its time responding to this lawsuit because a result in his favor would have been led to some difficult questions.

“They don’t want to be embarrassed by anything that could potentially come out as opposed to what they did in the IAP. Because people are going to compare this case to the IAP. And then everybody’s going to go, OK, well, hey, how come he got that and we couldn’t? You’re going to have lots of questions,” he said.

He said conditions at the school were horrible and the government knew it but did nothing.

“Even though it may have been called a school in the minds of the government, it wasn’t really a school. It was a prison camp for small children, starting at five. It was a place where the kids were literally starved in there,” he said. “They didn’t have enough food for us. We were always hungry. And I think anyone you’ve talked to, you’ll find that’s probably the same case. Always hungry. So in order to supplement that, we would always have to go and dig in the dump, local dump. There was just maybe a half mile away or so, or a couple

“There was just maybe a half mile away or so, or a couple kilometres away and the other was, we were confined. So this was a prison. This was actually a federal prison. I don’t know why they even call it a school. It wasn’t a school because we were confined. And we were beaten. There’s was a lot of beatings. I took a lot of beatings. And a lot of times for things so minor that you wondered why they would engage in things like that.”


(The Mohawk Training Institute in Brantford, Ontario. The school operated from 1828 to 1970.)

Last year, Riley, frustrated with the slow pace of his case, changed law firms. He is now represented by former Ontario premier and interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae, who is a senior partner at OKT – Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP in Toronto.

Rae toured the former residential school with Riley. He has no doubt that his client was physically and sexually abused there.

“The issue for me is, what is the continuing legal obligation of Canada, with respect to its . . . the Crown has a fiduciary obligation. There’s an obligation to take care of the people who are treated in that way,” said Rae.

“They didn’t take care. There was clear negligence on their part. And the church had an obligation, which, not only negligence on their part, but actually people who worked for the church and who were representative of the church committed the abuse. So when you put those things together, you have what I think is without any question, a very strong legal claim.”

The lawyer was not nearly as quick as his client to conclude the government had delayed the case for political reasons. He said the government had attempted to negotiate a solution. But the government was in a unique position.

“I mean this is where the Crown has two roles, right? The Crown is a defendant for what happened, throughout many decades of what happened in residential schools. But in this case, the Crown is also the government, which has an ongoing responsibility. Because the Crown’s responsibilities, the honour of the Crown doesn’t suddenly evaporate when you’re a defendant in court. Even when you’re a defendant in court, you still have to act honorably and effectively in defending the interests of the First Nations,” he said.

“That, I don’t think has always been followed by the Crown. I think that’s an ongoing challenge.”

Regardless of the outcome of Riley’s court action, those who participated in the settlement agreement will not see a benefit.

“No. The hard fact is that if you’ve been part of the class action and you settled as a result of the class action, then you accepted the settlement payment that was worked out under the class-action scheme that was established by the federal government and the churches. That’s it,” Rae said.

For more on the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – click here: Truth? Or Reconciliation? 

After he left politics, Rae joined a law firm that specializes in Aboriginal law. He has no doubt that there has been inter-generational harm.

“So we need to understand, the residential school experience was not a 10-year problem, or a 15- or 20-year problem. This is something which lasted for, well, if you go back to the very first residential school and you come to the one last was closed, 160 years. And that’s a long time for inter-generational damage to have been done. And it’s been done for a long time. And that, I think, helps to explain the level of pain that we see in communities.

“And if the people don’t think there’s pain in these communities, they haven’t talked to people. They haven’t visited the communities. Because these communities are deeply troubled places, and we need to understand why. How has that happened?” he said.

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10 Responses to “Survivor’s court case could win damages for intergenerational harms from residential schools”

    Carol June 20, 2017 at 6:29 pm #

    What would be the process in join your petition for reconciliation? Even if it’s only to get emotional support for my husband, ie… a name of therapist that specializes in IRS trauma. He hasn’t filed nor seeked for help regard his IRS experience.

    Cheryl Borgfjord June 20, 2017 at 10:01 pm #

    My mom and her siblings got taken away to residential school at a very young age. I really feel that shes was abused, even though nothing was mentioned. My upbringing was BRUTAL at times to put it mildly. I was parented the way the nuns and priests parented my mother. Some days it was just pure hell, but she perservered. Kept speaking our language, sat on many boards in our community and was always working on some kind of artistic/craft, be it traditional weaving, knitting, sewing. Classes which she would sign me up for and then tell me later. THOSE memories are the ones I hold dear. Not the damaged, mis-treated little girl that got ripped away by a bunch of abusive, heartless people who hid behind the veil of “religion”…

    Stanley Redford June 21, 2017 at 11:48 am #

    Great argument and great story as I am the youngest of five who suffered from the intergenerational effects of residential school with drug and alcohol abuse I have a brother with hep C and HIV and all but my sister with criminal records and suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction from a mother who attended Holy Angels residential school for 9 years. They hit her so much for speaking cree on the right side of her face she lost hearing and they broke her wristt and put a Band-Aid over it and it healed wrong as the bone protrudes. She is an alcoholic with a lot of trauma is desensitized but acts like she’s 10 years sometimes, they took her at 5 years old and she never speaks of her abuse she got and she never taught us the cree language, she couldn’t she says they beat it out of her but she speaks of little to her siblings some are all messed up some have died from alcoholism and drug abuse none of us kids graduated as we always moved every year or two years so we had to learn to adapt or fight and fight dirty we did the racism was worst when you’re starting school in December or March in a new town in northern BC. I’m a Bill C31 so I had to apply for my status and it only reaches to my first born not my second and my grandchildren don’t receive the treaty rights or benefits but my mother who will be 80 soon is lost in her own world drinks in silence but I’ve taken counseling four years to accept her the way she is and just hold her and love her and I’ve been clean and sober over 8 years off the drugs and alcohol that ripped my family and kids away from me for 20 years and just now over the last three years they came back into my life so I too have given my children and grandchildren the intragenerational effects of residential schools.
    Will they pass it on to my great-grandchildren?
    Time will tell.

    Langley BC from the
    Mikisew Cree First Nation

      Roger C Goodeye June 26, 2017 at 4:08 pm #

      Both my parents and grandparents were survivors of the IRS. I just recently started to realized why I have gone through such a dysfunctional life similar as yours was. Intragenerational effects from IRS has taken devastating effects on my whole family. Half of my family of 14 siblings died as a result of alcohol. I am 76years old and have worked to survive since I was 14 years old despite suffering from the effects of alcohol. Both my parents suffered from alcohol but still managed to work to raise a family. It amazes me how us children survived the extreme poverty that we lived under. My entire life is a tragic story involving numerous relationship with women and the damage I inflicted by passing down the IRS effects to my children.

    Carol R June 21, 2017 at 3:06 pm #

    I totally agree that children of survivors of residential schools were and still are severely affected by the way we were brought up! So much much abuse of all kinds! If there is a class action law suiet, I as a child of a survivor would like to be on it or see one done!

    Nish Kwe June 22, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    I guess you can say I am considered a “Child of a Survivor” myself, my Mother as well as 2 of her six siblings were sent away to Spanish Residential School for a period of 9 years. She was an excellent provider, she never abused drugs or alcohol, and I knew she loved all 5 of her children, me being the youngest, but she never showed emotions or gestures that she loved us, (hugging, kissing, etc.) I always had to initiate the hug or tell her I loved her first. At times she was “uncomfortable” or you knew she almost didn’t know how to react to that loving affection we showed her as she wasn’t familiar with that type of emotion. As a parent, I ALWAYS hug and tell my girls I love them everyday. I wanted to break the cycle.

    If there is a Class Action Law Suit, I also would like to be a part of it.

    Margery Loverin June 22, 2017 at 7:08 pm #

    How can we file for misuse of funds that was allotted to us for the suffering we went through when they said, we had $3000.00 for our education and/or we could purchase a computer or donate the money to our children or grandchildren? I wanted to either purchase a computer or donate to my grand-daughter for University, she was happy about that as she could of used the computer but someone I don’t even know whom it was gave that money away. Seems like fraud to me in all aspects of the word. If I did that I’d be sent to jail for sure. It is no less that the nun who told us we were savages and someone needs to pay for a possible crime committed here. Take a good look at the picture, did they do that to the Japanese who were put in camps? This picture is cracked and marred beyond a real recognition in all sense of the word “discrimination against Indian people” and somebody or a body of people are responsible as far as I feel. One crime from the way were treated as children seem to arise again as we go into our Elders age, “abuse of Elders it seems.” Am I wrong on how I feel about this issue? If a sum of money was given to me, no one else has the right to take it away and/or donate to another body of people without my permission and it seems someone else has more say over dollars issued to me and I can’t see how that could be.!!! Abuse is all over this whole reconciliation thing we seem to be going through and no one except us suffer the consequences. Tell me, I’m only a savage person, are we wrong about our feeling of being abused as Elders?????

    Anna-Marie June 24, 2017 at 3:23 am #

    I’m not comfortable leaving a very discript comment on a public forum. But for what it’s worth I hope this goes all the way to the finish line for a win.
    Anyone out there who likes phrases like, “that was all so long ago, it’s in the past” or “you didn’t have to go through it your parent did so it doesn’t concern you” or my favorite one to hate, “there are a lot of races who’ve gone through worse, just let it go already” don’t understand what a cycle of abuse even is…
    Many tears have been spilled and many more to come as we try to pour all our healing love possible into the next and next generations.
    Foster homes followed residential schooling for many a child born of a residential school ‘survivor.

    Chris Towegishig June 24, 2017 at 3:37 pm #

    Hi what about the survivors they told me my late father had to die before the given date

    Roger C Goodeye June 26, 2017 at 4:25 pm #

    I never realized why my life was so dysfunctional until I figured intragenerational effect from IRS into the equation. Had I realized the root of my suffering was from intragenerational effect from IRS I could have probably dealt with it sooner in my life, therefore preventing me from passing it onto my children.I have.