A Manitoba court ruled on Thursday that 30 years is too long for former residential school students to file their complaints.
Two formers students had their claims thrown out by the Manitoba Court of Appeal because the province's statute of limitations had run out before legal action was started.
The decision could affect more than 1,000 other claims.
Gabe Mentuck, who spent seven years in the residential school system, was enraged by the decision.
"If a judge came here, I'd tear him to pieces, that's how angry I am," he said.
"It was like hell living in that institution, and the things that happened to me we were terrorized."
Father Jean Paul Isabelle, the former head of the Oblates of Manitoba, says the order had to defend themselves the way they did.
"When the claimants refused to go through a non-adversarial system and go through the courts, we were obliged to insist the laws were observed," he said.
Bill Percy, a lawyer who represents more than 200 former students, including Mentuck, says the decision has far-reaching implications.
"None of the people would be able to advance their claims if the churches and government decide to rely on this decision," he said.
Percy says federal officials have said informally that Ottawa won't necessarily enforce provincial statutes of limitations, but they haven't made that commitment in court.
Mentuck wants the Manitoba government to strike down the statute of limitations for residential school cases. Some other provinces have, including Ontario.