A former St. Anne’s Indian Residential School student says she has lost faith in Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett after learning the federal government is seeking thousands of dollars in legal fees from a lawyer representing the survivors.
Angela Shisheesh, who attended the Fort Albany, Ont. school infamous for using a homemade electric chair as punishment and entertainment, said she thinks the federal government is warning other lawyers to back down from defending Indigenous people in court.
“I don’t trust anybody anymore,” Shisheesh says.
In a rare legal move, the federal government is seeking $25,000 in legal costs from lawyer Fay Brunning, who has been representing St. Anne’s students for years.
Shisheesh said this contradicts what Bennett told her and other St. Anne’s students during a meeting in April, when the government was seeking an apology from the Pope over the Catholic Church’s role in the abuses inflicted on Indigenous children at residential schools.
Shisheesh said she left the meeting under the impression that Bennett would not pursue Brunning in court.
“She lied to me, literally. She lied to me. It hurts. It’s just another abuse, that’s how I feel right now,” said Shisheesh, through tears.
St. Anne’s residential school was the subject of more than 60 lawsuits for the physical, sexual and psychological horrors inflicted on Indigenous students.
Much of the abuse was documented in thousands of pages generated from an Ontario provincial police investigation. While the federal government has released some of the materials, much of it has been kept secret.
Brunning has been fighting for access to the documents, which survivors say is relevant to their compensation claims.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perell ruled the government was within its right to withhold those documents and the Appeal Court agreed.
Brunning has been critical of the decision, alleging the court was biased in favour of Canada – comments that did not sit well with Perell.
In January, he issued a scathing ruling stating Brunning “slandered the court” and acted unprofessionally, which lead to the federal court’s decision to pursue legal fees from Brunning.
James Fitz-Morris, Bennett’s director of communications, calls it an “exceptional” situation.
“Canada has not – and will not – seek costs against individual claimants,” he says in an email. However, “in exceptional circumstances – costs can be sought against lawyers who do not appear to be acting responsibly.”
Any costs paid by Brunning will be donated to a fund that supports former students, he says.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents the riding where St. Anne’s was located, calls the move a “simple intimidation tactic” intended to stifle lawyers fighting claims.
“Carolyn Bennett met with survivors and said that she would stop this vendetta and yet she walked out of that meeting and business carried on,” he told APTN News. “To me, that is the most shocking thing that a government minister could look survivors in the eye and lie to them. I don’t know how else to call it.”
“We left that meeting with an understanding that these legal battles were going to end and there was going to be some form of justice.”
Cathy McLeod, the Conservative Indigenous issues critic, says the Liberal government has been inconsistent in its messaging about reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“It just shows the absurdity of the current government,” she said. “They sort of say that they want to move towards better relations and they want to be transparent and whether it is the young girl … fighting her dental care in court or going after lawyers who are trying to do the right thing for residential school survivors, they’re just not congruent.”
Bennett’s office has denied allegations the minister lied to St. Anne’s survivors.
In a statement emailed through Fitz-Morris, Bennett says she’s reviewing the proposals from the former students of the school.
“We can accomplish so much more working together outside of the confrontational courts – and we agreed to do that,” she said.
The matter of costs between Brunning and the federal government has yet to be settled in court.
Defence lawyer Lawrence Greenspon has filed a motion asking Perell to recuse himself from the matter, arguing the judge is biased against Brunning.
It’s not the first time Brunning has been accused of defamation.
Ontario law firm Wallbridge, Wallbridge filed a lawsuit against Brunning, alleging she defamed its lawyers when she claimed they sat on police files critical to a residential school survivor’s compensation claim.
But for Shisheesh, Brunning is a champion for Indigenous rights.
“Fay Brunning, she’s the best lawyer I have ever met. She has so much compassion towards Indigenous people, wanting to help them, and she did that out of the goodness of her heart.”