Minister, Indigenous advocates say 'Indian hospital' class-action can't right all wrongs

Liberal cabinet minister Carolyn Bennett said the federal government hopes to "right any wrongs" that happened within the country's now-shuttered "Indian hospitals," but suggested a class-action lawsuit may not be the ideal approach.

$1.1 billion class-action lawsuit focuses on segregated hospitals across Canada

Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Carolyn Bennett, the minister for Crown-Indigenous relations, said the government wants "justice to be done." (CBC News)

Liberal cabinet minister Carolyn Bennett says the federal government hopes to "right any wrongs" that happened within the country's now-shuttered "Indian hospitals," but suggests a class-action lawsuit may not be the ideal approach.

Bennett, the minister for Crown-Indigenous relations, made the comments during a media scrum Tuesday, after CBC News reported on a $1.1 billion class-action lawsuit launched against the federal government regarding segregated hospitals across the country.

"We hope to be able to get to the table as quickly as possible," Bennett said. "We want justice to be done."

But Bennett says many of the things Indigenous survivors often request — the need for healing, the need for an apology — can't be awarded by a court. "The sooner we can get this out of court, the better," she said.

The lawsuit, filed by two Canadian law firms last week, focuses on 29 segregated hospitals operated across the country by the federal government between 1945 and the early 1980s. Researchers say thousands of Indigenous patients may have been admitted to the institutions during that four-decade span.

The facilities were overcrowded, inadequately staffed, and rife with physical and sexual abuse, alleges the statement of claim. 

Indigenous patients were also unable to leave on their own accord, it continues, and were "forcibly detained, isolated, and, at times, restrained to their beds." 

'There must be structural changes'

"It is truly unfortunate that it takes a class action to bring attention to the issues that should have never occurred in the first place," said Yvonne Boyer, the associate director of the University of Ottawa Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics.

But Boyer says "no one really wins" class-action lawsuits in the long-term. Instead, she hopes to see racism in Canada's modern health care system addressed through more funding and increased dialogue with Indigenous communities. 

"There must be structural changes in health care to address injustices in quality, access and health outcomes," she said. "Indigenous people must co-design their own health services that are constitutionally protective of their rights with culturally appropriate and safe care."

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)

Indigenous activist Gerald McIvor believes a class-action lawsuit of some kind is necessary — and hopes to file one of his own — but worries that plaintiffs could wind up with only minimal financial compensation.

McIvor feels a lawsuit should encompass alleged abuses within not just government-run "Indian hospitals," but also tuberculosis sanatoriums and other facilities in which First Nations children were allegedly "victims of insidious medical procedures which were tantamount to torture."

The recently-filed lawsuit focuses solely on the "Indian hospitals" operated by the federal government, not other types of institutions.