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Indigenous survivors of abuse in group homes want to sue Canada

Proposed class action suit claims federal government’s $750 million Sixties Scoop settlement doesn’t go far enough

by Jesse Winter
Dec 1 2017, 12:35pm

When Christine Mullin thinks back on her childhood, words fail her.

“They’re in there, they just won’t come out,” says the 56-year-old. After a moment, she presses on describing her early life in the Ridgeview Home, an institution for Indigenous children in Whitehorse, Yukon.

“When they would bath you, they had this brush that was so stiff it was like toenails. They’d scrub me so hard that it hurt. They said I was a dirty Indian,” Mullin says quietly.

“They would take that bar of soap and put it right up inside me, even with their fingers. They said they had to clean the dirt off of me: inside and out. They weren’t cleaning me, they were abusing me,” she told VICE News.

Like thousands of other Indigenous children across the country, Mullin was taken from her family in Dawson City, Yukon and placed in foster care, group homes or put up for adoption in what is today called the Sixties Scoop.

In early October the federal government announced a plan pay a total of $750 million to some Indigenous survivors of the Sixties Scoop, and create a $50 million foundation to support healing and reconciliation.

“They’d scrub me so hard that it hurt. They said I was a dirty Indian”

If approved by the courts this spring, the agreement in principle between the lead plaintiffs in an Ontario class action brought by Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel, will also settle 18 similar class-actions across the country.

But that settlement includes no compensation for the abuse Mullin says she suffered. According to the terms of the agreement in principal, Canada’s liability is limited to its failure to protect Indigenous children’s culture and identity, but not for what happened to many inside the homes and adopted families that children were placed in.

To be compensated for the abuse itself, survivors like Mullin will have to sue the children’s aid society that took them into care or the province or territory that ran the program. So that’s exactly what she’s doing.

Mullin is one of two lead plaintiffs in a newly proposed class action suit filed in October in the Yukon which names both the federal and territorial governments as defendants, claiming the federal settlement proposal doesn’t go far enough.

The statement of claim in the Yukon class-action, filed by Whitehorse law firm Shier and Jerome, says that along with attempting to “destroy the class member’s national, ethnic and racial groups,” the federal and territorial governments are also liable for the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, neglect and forced labour Yukon survivors suffered in the homes.

The Yukon Government said in a statement that it has no comment on the proposed class action because it is still before the courts.

Dan Shier, one of the two lawyers who filed the proposed Yukon class-action, said he worries about the lack of clarity around exactly who qualifies to be compensated under the proposed federal settlement. As it stands, only Status Indians and Inuit survivors will be compensated.

“Our class action includes non-status people,” Shier told VICE News. “We refer to them as First Nations because we want to take the focus off a categorization imposed by the government (and the Indian Act).”

Shier says by his estimates there could be up to a thousand class members in the Yukon alone.

Individual survivors who aren’t covered under the categories laid out in the federal settlement proposal, or who lack the necessary paperwork to prove it, can still file an exceptional circumstances application for inclusion, according to Jeffrey Wilson, one of the lead lawyers who negotiated the settlement.

“It’s intended … so that people who don’t fall under the particular classifications, or who may not have the records they need would still be able to bring an exceptional circumstances application to be included,” Wilson said.

But Wilson said that he still has questions about why the government insisted Métis not be included in the class for compensation even though they can be part of the healing foundation, the aim of which is to provide education and activities that revitalize and protect First Nations, Inuit, and Métis languages and cultures.

And while all of this is being sorted out, the federal government recently promised to change the Indian Act to remove gender-biased rules around who qualifies for Indian Status.

That raises another question: what about a Scoop survivor who had no status when they were taken as a child but are granted it, say, three or four years from now when (or if) the Indian Act is changed? Will they have missed out on compensation under the proposed settlement?

When asked about that particular scenario, the Crown-Indigenous Reconciliation Ministry said, well, it’s complicated.

“While this particular Agreement–in-Principle addresses the claims of those individuals in the Brown class action and similar claims – it does not mean all issues around the Sixties Scoop have been addressed,” the ministry told VICE News an emailed statement.

“We know that there are other claims that remain unresolved, including those of the Métis, and we are committed to working collaboratively and collectively with the parties and our partners to resolve these outstanding claims, through negotiation,” the statement said.

Organizers with the National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network (NISCWN), a national non-profit group, say as well-intentioned as the federal settlement proposal may be, it was hastily rolled out and caught vulnerable people off guard.

“Since the announcement … we’re seeing people are really left hanging,” said Colleen Cardinal, a NISCWN co-founder.

“Legal, emotional, spiritual and cultural supports weren’t in place for this announcement. It’s kind of like picking a scab and just leaving it open. That’s what the settlement announcement has done, and there’s no medicine to help it heal,” she said.

On Monday Cardinal’s organization, which is not directly connected to any lawsuits, launched a toll-free national support hotline for Sixties Scoop survivors who are struggling with the emotional impact of a deluge of media requests and seeing their pain splashed across headlines. She has been fielding many of the calls herself.

“People are telling us ‘I don’t know where to get help from, I don’t know any information about this, or who to call or where to get counselling, I don’t know anything,’” she said.

Meanwhile Bill Stewart, a Métis Scoop survivor and a NISCWN member is working to create an official national day of recognition for the Sixties Scoop.

“The idea of establishing the day is to help cement it in the consciousness of the country, something we can all feel connected to and so the country has it there in its mind,” he said.

Even so, Stewart says he wants to see the current agreement in principal thrown out entirely and a new one negotiated, that would include all Indigenous scoop survivors at once regardless of their Indian status.

“I think a real opportunity was lost when the lead plaintiffs signed off on (the proposed settlement). I think they shouldn’t have,” Stewart says.

“I understand all their fears and concerns, I understand how long it’s been. But if we say no to this deal the government will have to come back with something better because there is international pressure on them,” he said.

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