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Residential school survivors face 'adversarial' government

Lawyers who represent survivors of residential schools say the federal government is either ill-equipped or deliberately stalling as some clients wait years for information.

Lawyers say government attitude has 'shifted' as survivors wait for information

A number of lawyers from Northern Canada say the federal government's attitude towards residential school abuse claims has changed.  

Many lawyers say they are seeing more delays and are processing more appeals since the process began.

Steven Cooper has represented hundreds of survivors who are filing claims of physical and sexual abuse.  

He says delays are beginning to take a toll on his clients.

"My clients are phoning in saying 'I'm going to hang myself, I am going to kill myself, I can't stand this anymore," he says. "We are getting e-mails daily from a couple of clients saying 'where is the decision?'"

Cooper says the way Ottawa is handling residential school Independent assessment claims is no longer being done in the spirit of truth and reconciliation or collaboration.

"I have one [client] where we have waited 18 months for a decision. We were told that it was sent to the secretariat for review, then sent to the adjudicator, we don't know what's going on internally, all we know is that our clients are going through hell".

We don't know what's going on internally, all we know is that our clients are going through hell- Steven Cooper, lawyer working with residential school survivors

The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement was established to right historical wrongs against Canada's aboriginal people. The Independent Assessment Process or IAP is a way for former students who were abused to settle out of court.

Cooper says the Independent Assessment process has never been easy, but his frustration these days is multiplying. 

"It just seems to be that the whole approach by the government now is very mean spirited and very adversarial."

Whitehorse based IAP lawyer Laura Cabot says over the last year and a half she has also seen a change in how Ottawa handles survivors' cases.

She says the residential school survivors she represents are also confused.

 "It seems to be a shift with the federal government with how they are presenting and processing claims, it seems like if there's an opportunity to deny a claim or bring forward issues that would make a claim unsuccessful they are readily doing that," she says.

​Cabot points to a case where one person was compensated, but their family member who attended the same school was not. She says it's baffling and has made a number of her clients feel re-victimized and have lost trust in the system. 

Aboriginal Affairs told CBC News no one was available to comment, but provided a statement saying there is no staff shortage to process or hear individual IAP claims.

"Our government has committed considerable resources to ensure that we meet our obligations under the IRSSA. We received more claims than anticipated and are working to resolve them as expeditiously as possible." the statement said.

For his part the Chief Adjudicator for the Independent Assessment Secretariat, Dan Shapiro, says they are doing everything they can. "

For his part the Chief Adjudicator for the Independent Assessment Secretariat, Dan Shapiro, says they are doing everything they can. 

"We are conscious of the fact that there some frustrations but it really has to be viewed as in terms of the context and the sheer volume of applications we received".

Shapiro says the secretariat expected about 12,500 but has instead received almost 38,000 applications.

He adds that almost 10,000 claims were filed very close to the government's deadline.

Cooper says if the department is understaffed it's a federal responsibility to add more personnel.  

"I just think that's an excuse, it's a standard government excuse, 'shucks we're understaffed, God we are burnt out', well my clients are burned out and are sick and tired of being treated different than their colleagues, their fellow students, their family members from a few years ago," he said.

The Secretariat says it expects to process 4,200 claims this year. 

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitanmaax band of the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt has been a journalist for close to 20 years with her news and current affairs pieces featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C.

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