Opinion

Sixties Scoop settlement a rotten deal for survivors but a windfall for lawyers

Sixties Scoop survivors who were potential claimants in Ontario's class action lawsuit were left in the dark as negotiations reduced the expected settlement payout, says Doug George-Kanentiio.

Survivors left in the dark as negotiations reduced expected settlement payout

Chief Marcia Brown Martel sings outside the Parliament buildings following a government news conference announcing a compensation package for indigenous victims of the Sixties Scoop, in Ottawa last October. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canadian taxpayers are once again being royally hosed in the proposed Sixties Scoop settlement which once again exploits Indigenous Peoples and enriches the lawyers.

I am one of those people who, as a child, was taken from my home community on the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory and placed in a series of foster homes, 15 in total, over a five-year period. I was shuffled from "homes" in Quebec and Ontario, staying for as long as a few months to a mere four days in one instance.

I had been forced to attend the notorious Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., more than 500 km from my home. It was one of the worst of the residential schools, where physical and sexual violence were everyday events.

I was, along with the Akwesasne Mohawk contingent, expelled (much to our satisfaction) in June 1968 and expected to return home but the bus carrying us from the train station in Cornwall was intercepted by social workers who took my brothers and I to what was to become a series of residences away from our family and friends.

My surviving parent, my father, had no say in the matter as it was the practice then to remove children based upon a decision made by the Indian Agent, the local priest, a nurse in the reserve's clinic and an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Taken away again

Opposition to these formidable agents of the federal government was impossible as my father would have been jailed and his children taken to reform schools which actually happened to two of my brothers. The only thing we could do was to adopt a strategy of non-compliance, of remaining silent in those homes, communicating nothing, and when the opportunity arose to run away back to Akwesasne.

We came to realize that the goal of the agents was to alienate us from our community and to strip us of any semblance of pride or knowledge with regards to our Aboriginal heritage. My brothers and I were able to use our fists to deter the worst instances of abuse. Others weren't as lucky and were left at the mercy of their abusers.

Not once in the many years I was in the system did any person in a position of authority ask me what I felt, how I was treated or what I wanted.

Such was my experience which was supposed to be a part of the Sixties Scoop compensation initiative.

Visit from law firm

At a meeting at Akwesasne in April 2017 dozens of Mohawks met with an attorney from the Wilson Christen law firm in Toronto. We were told that litigation against Canada was then in its eighth year but that an Ontario judge had ruled in favour of the victims. We were told there were an estimated 16,000 possible claimants and that we could receive a minimum payment of $80,000 with more depending upon the levels of abuse which included physical acts of violence and the loss of culture.

We were told that we would be kept informed as to negotiations and consulted prior to any settlement.

We filled out a form in which we agreed to be included in the Sixties Scoop pool but never signed any contract to formally retain Wilson Christen.

We wanted to know the number of claimants but were told the lawyers did not know other than a rough guess.

We asked what formula they were using to determine compensation; they had none. We asked about our records which would support our claims and were informed there were no records.

We wanted to know how many Mohawks specifically were taken from Akwesasne but were given a "perhaps" as many as 100 per year over a 20-year period. We wanted to know how to reach out to those lost children and bring them back to their families but nothing was in place to do so.

How could, we asked, more than 2,000 Mohawks vanish? Was there anything within their proposals to identify them? No, there was not. Could they help us to find them? No.

Settlement surprise

We heard nothing over the next six months.

We were therefore shocked to learn on Oct. 6, 2017, that a preliminary settlement had been reached with the federal government without our knowledge or consent.

The settlement money of $750 million for individual compensation, far less than the $1.3 billion the plaintiffs had been asking for, would now be divided among thousands of additional claimants beyond the original group in Ontario. Individual payments would now be around $25,000.

We also learned that there were four law firms ready to divide the $75 million set aside for legal fees and one of those was Merchant Law Group in Saskatchewan, the same lawyers accused by the federal government of excessive billing in the residential school settlement.

The anger, bitterness and deep resentment toward these cultural vultures lingers on especially when the Sixties Scoop claimants learned that, as one of the four law firms involved, Wilson Christen may stand to make over $18 million.

Once again, we are victims exploited by a system which is designed to deny us not only fair compensation but that chance to have our voices heard and our experiences validated.

This is why I feel the Mohawks of Akwesasne should reject the October agreement and repudiate any action taken by any lawyer claiming to represent us.

The prime minister or a representative should meet with our Mohawk leadership in order to find a mutually acceptable resolution nation-to-nation, as it should be.

About the Author

Doug George-Kanentiio

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of the news journal Akwesasne Notes. He is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association and a columnist with News From Indian Country.