Medical experimentation among allegations investigated by Sherwood Park lawyer in 'Indian hospitals' lawsuit

A Sherwood Park lawyer leading a $1.1 billion class action lawsuit says he expects to hear from thousands of former patients of so-called "Indian hospitals" as allegations of medical experimentation emerge.

Other allegations include kids put in body casts for discipline and surgery without parental consent

A teacher with students during the 1960s at the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton, Alta., one of 29 facilities named in a class-action lawsuit. (Alberta Provincial Archives)

A Sherwood Park lawyer leading a $1.1 billion class action lawsuit says he expects to hear from thousands of former patients of so-called "Indian hospitals," including one in Edmonton, as allegations of medical experimentation emerge.

"What we have heard is absolutely horrifying," said Steve Cooper, of the Sherwood Park, Alta.-based firm Masuch Albert LLP,  "Children being disciplined by being placed in full body casts — not as a matter of medical need but in order for the staff to be able to control children who are a long ways from their parents."

Other allegations include surgeries performed on children without parental consent, physical and sexual abuse, medical negligence, and even medical experimentation — something they're just beginning to look into.

"I have heard, but not investigated, nutrition experiments," said Cooper, who was part of the committee that helped negotiate the $5-billion national residential school settlement in 2006. "Denying certain vitamins or other dietary components to see the effect. I suspect other so-called experiments will come out in the fullness of time."
Lawyer Steve Cooper says they expect to speak to thousands of former patients. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Cooper's firm filed the lawsuit in conjunction with Toronto-based firm Koskie Minsky LLP last Friday.

"We believe this class is in the thousands," said Cooper, noting Edmonton's former Charles Camsell Indian Hospital operated for decades. "And that's one hospital amongst 29 that we know of and there could be more."

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, who is writing a book about the Camsell, said the facility increasingly functioned as a segregated hospital for Indigenous patients while under federal jurisdiction between the late 1940s to 1960s.

Often admitted with tuberculosis, patients stayed up to three years because the main treatment was a "rest cure," she said. Many were isolated from their families, culture and language.
Ann Hardy, a Métis woman from Fort Smith, N.W.T, is one of the chief plaintiffs, in a class action suit alleging decades of abuse at federally run segregated hospitals. (Submitted by Ann Hardy)

Non-Indigenous veterans were treated at the Camsell in its earliest years just after the Second World War, said Metcalfe-Chenail.The hospital was opened to the general population in the late 1960s when the province took over operations and built a second building, which has been closed as a hospital for years but is under redevelopment.

Even as a student of Indigenous history and colonialism in Canada, Metcalfe-Chenail said she only began learning about Indigenous hospitals a few years ago, after meeting former patients while collecting stories about the Camsell, including Ann Hardy, one of the chief complainants in the lawsuit.

"Unfortunately in Canada it's taken lawsuits like this to shine a light on these dark corners of our history," said Metcalfe-Chenail.

"And so it's through these kinds of actions that we get it into the curriculum, we get it on the media, and that people start paying attention."
The redevelopment of the Camsell Hospital has faced challenges such as asbestos and a fire broke out in the empty building in May 2014. (Alicja Siekierska/CBC News)

With files from Radio Active