Lead plaintiff in Indian Day School lawsuit meets with N.W.T. chiefs

Garry McLean, the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit over abuses endured by students at Indian Day Schools, wants to make it easier for Northerners to file claims.

Former students who attended any of dozens of day schools in the North could be eligible for compensation

Garry McLean, the lead plaintiff in the Indian Day School court action, presents moccasins to Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett after the announcement of an agreement-in-principle last week. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

The lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit over abuses endured by students at Indian Day Schools wants to make it easier for northerners to file claims.

"We're not going to make the same mistakes we did in residential school, where people had to relive what happened to them," Garry McLean, the lead plaintiff, said at the Dene Nation headquarters in Yellowknife on Monday.

McLean met with chiefs in the Northwest Territories this week, on the invitation of Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya.

The meeting to discuss how former students can make claims happened just days after the federal government announced an agreement-in-principle on Indian Day School litigation.

It's a good win for the families and it's good win for our culture.- Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya

The agreement includes individual compensation for harms related to federally-run day schools, as well as $200 million for healing, education, language and commemoration.

The day schools were separate from residential schools and weren't included in the Indian Residential School Settlement.

According to Gowling WLG, the law firm representing survivors, Indigenous children all over Canada were forced to attend Indian Day Schools under the Indian Act.  

Norman Yakeleya at the Dene National Assembly. Yakeleya invited Gary McLean to meet with chiefs in the Northwest Territories. (John Last/CBC)

Former students suffered abuses similar to children at residential schools, said Robert Winogron, a lead lawyer on the class action.

They experienced physical, sexual and psychological abuse by adults who were supposed to be caring for them, as well as the loss of language and culture, he said.

There were just under 720 federally-run day schools in Canada. Though the list is still being refined, Winogron estimates that between 70 and 100 of those schools were in northern Canada.

The class action covers former students who are Inuit, Mé​tis and First Nations. Winogron said between 120,000 and 140,000 former students are alive today.

"This is the last really large remaining piece in all of childhood Indigenous claims," he said.

"So it's a very important — and I would say historic — piece to deal with reconciling the harms that these students suffered for all of these years, all of these decades." 

Garry McLean met with chiefs at the Dene Nation offices in Yellowknife on Monday. (Steve Silva/CBC)

'Money is not the answer'

McLean went to Dog Creek Day School at Lake Manitoba First Nation, starting at age seven.

He said the agreement-in-principle means the federal government is acknowledging the wrongs it committed against children, their families and their communities.

"At the same time, I know money is not the answer," he said.

"It doesn't matter how much money I got, there's no way I can replace the memories about how I get my mouth washed with Sunlight soap because I couldn't speak English. I got strapped because I couldn't speak English. I got humiliated because I couldn't speak English."

Chief Yakeleya called last week's announcement a "good win for the students."

"It's a good win for the families and it's good win for our culture, the Dene culture," he said.

There is no dollar amount mentioned in the statement of claim, said Winogron. More details are likely to come out in January.

Winogron said the hope is a settlement will be reached by the spring.