A Winnipeg lawyer has been stripped of his licence to practise law because he overcharged 55 former residential school students of almost $1 million.
Howard Tennenhouse pleaded guilty on Tuesday to professional misconduct for taking more than $950,000 in excess fees from former students he represented in federal compensation claims.
The Law Society of Manitoba, which disbarred Tennenhouse, said all former students will be reimbursed, either by Tennenhouse himself or by the society.
Allan Fineblit, the law society's chief executive officer, said half of the money has already been recovered and cheques will be going to the affected survivors as soon as possible.
"Many of these people are elderly, some of them are not in good health, and it's very important they get the money, like, right away," Fineblit told CBC News.
"Many of these people — getting in touch with them is difficult because they don't live in Winnipeg," he added. "Many of them don't have telephones. A lot of them don't speak English as their first language. So it may take a little bit of time."
Fineblit said he is confident that Tennenhouse will repay the remaining amount.
About 130 of the schools operated across Canada — excluding Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick — from the 19th century. The last one was closed in 1996.
About 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the church-run, government-funded schools, which aimed to assimilate them into European-Canadian society.
The federal government is in the midst of a $5-billion settlement agreement aimed at compensating some of the former students, also known as survivors.
Lawyers for the survivors are normally given a 15 per cent fee by the government on top of what their clients receive. Lawyers can seek additional fees from their clients of up to 15 per cent, but only with the approval of an adjudicator.
Adjudicator rejected extra fees
Tennenhouse, who had practised law in Manitoba since 1980, was suspended by the society last year after it was revealed he was taking payments beyond those permitted by the federal adjudicator.
"Mr. Tennenhouse appropriated fees to himself in excess of the amount payable by [the government of] Canada after those fees had been disallowed by the adjudicator," an agreed statement of facts read.
In two cases, Tennenhouse refused to respond to requests for information from adjudicators who inquired about his fees, according to the statement.
In some cases, he sent letters to clients advising them that the government had ruled they did not have to pay their fees, but added: "It was agreed upon between you and I that you would honour our agreement and would pay the 15 per cent from your proceeds."
Tennenhouse's licence was suspended last May when the investigation started, but he continued to act on behalf of some clients.
He told the law society's investigative committee "that he had not been meeting with … claimants when, in fact, he had met with four claimants in November 2011 and had completed and submitted their applications," according to the statement of facts.
Last fall, Tennenhouse repeatedly communicated with one of his clients who had complained to the law society "in an attempt to persuade him not to pursue his complaint."