Indian day school survivors launch $15B lawsuit

Thousands of residents of former Indian day schools in Manitoba hope a class-action lawsuit leads to healing.

Thousands of residents of former Indian day schools in Manitoba hope a class-action lawsuit leads to healing.

Aboriginal lawyer Joan Jack led a group of former students from the Manitoba legislature to Winnipeg's law courts where she officially filed their statement of claim on Friday.

Jack says the legal document went though a sweat lodge and was blessed in a traditional pipe ceremony beforehand.

"We prayed for that statement of claim and invoked and called upon spirits to bring life into that statement of claim just like our ancestors did with the treaties. The document is alive now," Jack said.

In the claim, the school survivors say they were physically and sexually abused and stripped of their language, culture and heritage. They are seeking $15 billion in damages.

The plaintiffs are listed as the Spirit Wind survivors group, a non-profit organization based in Winnipeg. The group was started in the mid-1980s as an advocate and supporter for the Indian residential school survivors movement. It was part of the original discussions to seek justice for survivors of Indian residential schools in Canada.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and offered a formal apology to former students of native residential schools.

Overseen by the Department of Indian Affairs, the church-run residential schools aimed to force aboriginal children to learn English, and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs as part of a government policy called "aggressive assimilation."

There were about 130 such schools in Canada, with some in every territory and province except Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, from as early as the 19th century to 1996.

In September, the federal government formalized a $1.9-billion compensation plan for victims. The government has also established a truth and reconciliation commission to examine the legacy of the residential schools.

"Many Canadians don't realize that the current [settlement] only dealt with our people who went to the residential schools, as defined by the government of Canada," said Ray Mason, chair of Spirit Wind Inc.

"Today we are seeking justice and compensation for Indian day school survivors who suffered the same."

The day schools were different from the residential schools in that students returned home at the end of the school day. At residential schools, students were kept in residence, away from family.

But like residential schools, the day schools were funded by the federal or provincial governments and run by the churches.

"The abuses were the same if not worse, [and the] only difference was that in some cases, the children got to go home at end of day. They went home hurt and ashamed of being aboriginal," Mason said.

Jack said the lawsuit is needed to make the government take full responsibility for those abuses.

"It's not just about the money; people feel left out," she said. "People from the same families — some brother would go to the residential school. They've been apologized to. There's been all this work that's been done; the truth and reconciliation is coming, blah, blah, blah. What has happened for the Indian day schools? Nothing."