First Nation wants Mi'kmaw woman's human rights complaint 'disposed of,' a year after her death

The family of a Mi'kmaw woman who died during the long wait for her human rights case over accessible housing to be heard says it's "insulting" that the defendants are trying to have the case dismissed.

Human Rights Commission pursuing late woman’s case 'in best interest of justice'

Annie Oleson and her granddaughter, Naomi, at their home in Wagmatcook in 2013. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

The family of a Mi'kmaw woman who died during the long wait for her human rights case over accessible housing to be heard says it's "insulting" that the defendants are trying to have the case dismissed.

Representatives of Wagmatcook Mi'kmaq First Nation were in Halifax Federal Court Wednesday to ask for the "setting aside" of a Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) inquiry into the case of Wagmatcook community member, Annie Oleson, who died in February 2017.

Oleson and her son, Joey, filed a CHRC complaint in 2014, claiming that Oleson was being discriminated against based on her disability because the Wagmatcook band had not accommodated her need for a wheelchair-accessible home.

Annie Oleson, 88 at the time, had arthritis-related mobility problems and had fallen several times inside her mobile home, which was provided by the band. She suffered an irreparable brain injury during one of the falls.

The wheelchair ramp at Annie Oleson's home did not meet Nova Scotia code and she couldn't use a wheelchair inside. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

After an almost three-year investigation into the complaint and months of fruitless negotiations between Oleson and Wagmatcook, the CHRC decided in December 2016 there was sufficient evidence for a formal inquiry by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. It will decide if the First Nation's action, or lack thereof, was discriminatory.

Oleson, who'd been receiving treatment for cancer, died a few months after that decision.

"I think [Wagmatcook's challenge] is absolutely insulting and insane," said Joey Oleson.

"It was my mother's last ditch to contact the tribunal. It's not something she wanted to do, it was something she was backed into in her 80s. The band knew what they were doing the whole time."

Joey Oleson, who has acted as his mother's defacto legal advisor throughout most of her housing issues, maintains that he has nothing to gain from the tribunal.

Oleson and her family said the home was too small and crowded to allow access for a wheelchair. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

Throughout the case, he said the band has taken the stance that he's "in it for the money," but if that were the case, Oleson said they would have launched a lawsuit.

Case 'her legacy'

He said if the tribunal rules in their mother's favour, his family wants to ensure there are punitive damages issued or criminal charges laid against the band.

Oleson added that damages should be paid to families of other Wagmatcook seniors who have dealt with "horrible" housing issues, like a Wagmatcook senior who went 15 years without running water.

"We want this to go on so no one else has to see their mother suffer like we did," said Joey Oleson.

"It was inhumane. I've never seen anyone treated like this in my life."

Oleson says at the end of her life, Annie Oleson, whom he calls "a hero," knew she would die before she saw justice. She told him to press on with the case, so that others would be spared pain, he said.

"Keep going. That's what she'd say now. This case will turn out to be her legacy," he said.

'It's heartbreaking'

Joey Oleson, along with his daughter and brother, was living with his mother during the lengthy time she'd been asking for accessible accommodations.

"I was her wheelchair," he said.

"She couldn't get around in there, and she couldn't be left alone in case of an emergency or another fall."

Joey Oleson said his late mother's housing issues with Wagmatcook date back over a decade. He said that despite the allotment of accessible homes to other band members, the only offer made to his mother by Wagmatcook was for accessible homes of the recently deceased that had been spoken for by their families - making his mother a target for retaliation.

"It just wasn't enough. It wasn't right," he said.

Joey Oleson said he has no doubt the case had an effect on his mother's health.

"It just hurt her. Probably more than I can convey in words. It's heartbreaking."

'In the best interests of justice'

Because Oleson's case is before the court, the Canadian Human Rights Commission isn't able to comment on the matter, but documents show that after Oleson's death, its lawyers requested to intervene "in the best interests of justice."

Simply put, the document outlines that since Oleson had died, the case and anything to be learned from it — insight into discriminatory practices and proactive protection of the rights of First Nations seniors included — would die with her.

Joey Oleson said CHRC has been pursuing the case on behalf of the public interest since his mother's death, to ensure First Nations seniors' right to accessible housing is upheld.

The First Nation responds

In January 2017, Wagmatcook First Nation filed to have the CHRC investigation reviewed independently. It will argue to have the decision for a tribunal hearing "set aside," and to have Oleson's complaint "disposed of" completely.

"Our concern … is that [CHRC] did not reveal in any transparent way, what the analysis was that went into the decision for the hearing," said lawyer Gary Richard, who's representing Wagmatcook.

Richard said the band's application for an independent review is commonly "just part of the process" in cases dealing with human rights complaints. It's a way to ensure that the human rights commission's work on Oleson's case thus far is worthy of a tribunal hearing.

Annie Oleson with her son Joey Oleson in her home in the Bras d'or Lake area in Cape Breton in 2016. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

"That being said, the band is intent on defending itself on this matter," Richard said.

"It's comfortable that … it's given the elders in the community the respect that they richly deserve, including Mrs. Oleson. The band is going to carry on and would like to resolve this on a reasonable basis."

Explanations at times 'contradictory'

In a report submitted to court after its investigation, the CHRC states that Wagmatcook First Nation's denial of an accessible home to Oleson affected her adversely due to her disability, and that their explanations for the denial "appear at times to be contradictory."

The report goes on to state that the CHRC found the First Nation did not "reasonably" explain the allotment of accessible homes to other band members but not Oleson, and that contrary to medical evidence, Wagmatcook expressed doubt that Oleson required use of a wheelchair.

In its application for independent review, Wagmatcook challenges these findings. Wagmatcook Chief Norman Bernard could not reached for comment on the matter, but Richard said the matter is being handled in a way that "honours Mrs. Oleson."

"The band doesn't want to get into the particular evidence and the unfortunate history of dealing with [Joey] Oleson, because that historically had just caused, you know, unfortunate responses," said Richard.

Wagmatcook's challenge will only affect the tribunal if the Federal Court rules in the band's favour. Otherwise, a full tribunal hearing is still to come.

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About the Author

Nic Meloney

Videojournalist

Nic Meloney is a Wolastoqew video journalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at nic.meloney@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.