Class action suit says Canada used Indigenous people as medical 'guinea pigs'

Tony Merchant, the principal at Regina-based Merchant Law group, says the suit ties together experiences affecting thousands of Indigenous people in Canada.

Man claims part of his lung was removed unnecessarily

Merchant Law Group filed the suit last week in the Court of Queen's Bench for Saskatchewan on behalf of John Pambrun, a resident of Lestock, Sask., and one of thousands of children the suit claims were mistreated. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

A Saskatchewan man has launched a class-action lawsuit, alleging the federal government is responsible for experiments and the inadequate medical treatment of residential school students and Indigenous patients at hospitals and sanatoriums across the country.

Merchant Law Group filed the suit last week in the Court of Queen's Bench for Saskatchewan on behalf of John Pambrun, a resident of Lestock, Sask. and one of thousands of children the suit claims were mistreated.

Tony Merchant, the principal at Regina-based Merchant Law group, says the suit ties together experiences affecting thousands of Indigenous people in Canada, who were treated like guinea pigs and given different treatments than their non-Indigenous peers.

"For many people, they don't even know that they were used in these ways in the schools," he said. "They don't know that tests were done on them. They don't know that they were a control group. They don't know that the medical treatment they were receiving for tuberculosis was different."

He called it part of Canada's "atrocious past," in its treatment of Indigenous people. 

Tony Merchant, principal at Regina-based Merchant Law group, said that he feels confident in the strength of a lawsuit the law firm is launching against the federal government. The class action alleges that Indigenous students and patients received unnecessary and experimental medical treatment.

The suit has not been tested in court.

This is not the first time such a suit has been filed in Canada. In January, two Canadian law firms filed a $1.1-billion class-action lawsuit on behalf of former patients of 29 segregated hospitals operated across the country by the federal government between 1945 and the early 1980s.

Man had part of lung removed: suit

Pambrun spent more than five years in hospitals and sanatoriums, including the Saskatoon Sanitorium, from the ages of eight to 15, the latest suit says.

According to the statement of claim, doctors at the Saskatoon Sanitorium removed part of Pambrun's right lung in 1955  as a treatment for tuberculosis, even though tests had revealed he did not have TB and despite antibiotics having become "the standard treatment for tuberculosis."

"We are mystified why they performed the surgery," Merchant told CBC News Wednesday. 

The experience has left Pambrun with breathing problems that affected his experience of life and limited his employment options, according to the suit.

"It has just been gnawing him all these years that he was mistreated by a nation that took him into their care, and had a special responsibility for his care," said Merchant.

Merchant said he felt confident in the strength of the suit, but said that many people who may have been affected by this treatment may already be dead, and alleged that some may have died because of the treatment they received.  

"Correcting these wrongs, compensation for these wrongs, is important and has to go forward very quickly."

Ear and nutrition experiments

The suit also alleges nutritional experiments were carried out on students, without their consent, at residential schools in B.C., Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia.

Another 165 students from Cecilia Jeffrey School in Kenora, Ont., were used to test an experimental drug on children with ear problems, with some suffering significant hearing loss, according to the suit.

Read the full statement of claim below.

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