Lawyers exploiting native school survivors, says group

Former students of native residential schools say they are being mistreated by some lawyers who are supposed to help them claim federal compensation.

Former students of native residential schools say they are being mistreated by lawyers who are supposed to help them claim federal compensation, but are instead taking their award money in some cases.

The National Residential School Survivors' Society, which represents about 32,000 former students across Canada, is calling on law societies to do more to discipline lawyers who are taking advantage of those who are applying for compensation.

Society spokesman Ted Quewezance said some survivors are being told their claims are bogus, while others are having problems with the lawyers they have hired.

"We get complaints regarding lawyers — lawyers cherry-picking certain cases, only taking cases which are lucrative, and denying the little people," Quewezance told reporters Thursday in Winnipeg.

Some lawyers are taking money for services that are not being provided, and some are taking more money than what they are entitled to receive, he added.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, formalized in 2007, includes a Common Experience Payment in which verified former students receive $10,000 each for the first year they attended residential schools, plus $3,000 for each successive year.

The federal agreement also includes an Independent Assessment Process that provides compensation to claims of serious sexual, physical or any form of abuse that caused psychological damage to former students.

Lawyers receive 15 per cent of the compensation award as their fee, but they can also charge clients up to 15 per cent more.

But some former students claim they have had to pay more than half of their compensation money to lawyers.

"A lot of them feel that it's just an extension of how they were treated in residential schools," said Mike Cachagee, the society's acting executive director.

Society wants judicial review

The society is also demanding a judicial review of the $1.9-billion residential schools settlement agreement, as well as more time for former students to apply for compensation.

"We got serious problems with the courts. We got serious problems with lawyers that are out there. And we got problems with Canada," said Quewezance. "Essentially all have abdicated their responsibilities."

Representatives with the National Residential School Survivors' Society speak to reporters Thursday in Winnipeg. (CBC)

But officials with the federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Department said there is no requirement for a judicial review, and there is no plan to reopen the settlement agreement.

Quewezance said he may look to international courts to review some of the issues that residential school survivors are facing.

A total of about 130 schools operated across Canada — excluding Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick — from the earliest in the 19th century to the last, which closed in 1996.

All in all, about 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the church-run, government-funded schools, which aimed to assimilate them into European-Canadian society.

Law society monitors situation

The chief adjudicator of the national compensation process has already warned lawyers twice against taking advantage of their vulnerable clients.

The British Columbia Supreme Court recently ordered an investigation into a Calgary-based law firm for allegedly mishandling residential school compensation awards.

In January, Winnipeg lawyer Howard Tennenhouse was suspended from practising after it was alleged that he was taking payments beyond those permitted by an adjudicator.

The allegations against Tennenhouse deal with about 50 of his clients, all of whom are residential school survivors. The Law Society of Manitoba is scheduled to hold a conduct inquiry later this month.

Allan Fineblit, chief executive officer of the Manitoba law society, said his organization is monitoring the overall situation "extremely closely."

"Not only are you dealing with, in some cases, large amounts of money, but you're also dealing with highly vulnerable people. Many of these people have suffered great trauma as a result of what happened to them. It's very difficult for them to talk about their experiences," Fineblit said.

"We're the regulator of the legal profession, and our job is to protect the public."