Former students at a school for the deaf in Saskatchewan filed a class action lawsuit on Tuesday, alleging they were victims of physical and sexual abuse.

Regina lawyer Tony Merchant told CBC News that he represents 52 people who attended the government-run R.J.D. Williams Provincial School for the Deaf in Saskatoon.

Merchant, who is known as one of the lead litigators for former students at Indian residential schools, said members of the deaf community approached his law firm two years ago with complaints of abuse.

The school opened in 1955 and operated until 1996, Merchant said. It was also a residence for students.

That made students vulnerable, Merchant said, and his clients say they were victims of sexual and physical assaults by employees of the school and other students.

According to Merchant, the students had no opportunity to speak out about what they endured.

"They are cut off from their parents," Merchant told CBC News on Monday. "They aren't allowed, particularly in those days, to speak the language that they speak, which is American Sign Language."

According to Merchant, the school had complete control over the lives of students.

"They were not permitted to return home to their families unless approved by [school] administration," according to particulars outlined in the statement of claim, supplied to CBC News.

"As a result, from September to July, and sometimes over the summer months, students were imprisoned in the [school] and had no opportunity to complain to, or seek protection from, their families about and against the abuse."

The allegations in the lawsuit name former teachers and staff in connection with the specific experiences of two students.

Two stages to case

One was a student for 16 years, beginning in 1971 at the age of six. The lawsuit claims that the student was punched with fists, slapped and hit with a ruler. It is also alleged that he suffered various forms of sexual abuse, including fondling his genitals.

While the statement of claim provides many details of the allegations, none of it has been proven.

Merchant acknowledged that the legal process will take time.

"There are two stages here: decide if the Government of Saskatchewan is responsible and why," Merchant explained, "and then determine what appropriate compensation would be on a largely individual basis."

According to Merchant, the provincial government is the appropriate target of the lawsuit, because it failed to protect the students.

"The School for the Deaf in Saskatoon took no special steps, did none of the things you would expect in a school, none of the things we even take for granted today — counselors and suggestion boxes and some means for people to go to others and say 'I'm being bullied.' Or 'beaten up.' Or 'I am being sexually abused,'" Merchant said.

The lawyer said that, according to his research, residential schools for the deaf around the world had problems with abuse.

"They are very likely to have these kinds of problems, because the people come into the school, they are there for extended periods of time, they don't have the same powers of communication that they have with others," Merchant said.

Merchant predicted hundreds of other former students may yet join the class action claim.