Ontario law society investigating firm's handling of dying residential school survivor's claim

Ontario's legal profession watchdog is investigating a complaint against a northern Ontario law firm over allegations it mishandled a compensation claim from a dying survivor who attended St. Anne’s residential school.

This is the second complaint that has emerged against Wallbridge, Wallbridge over residential school cases

Bert William Solomon attended St. Anne’s Indian residential school from 1930 to 1935. (Submitted by Sophia Ethel Kelywegt)

Ontario's legal profession watchdog is investigating a complaint against a northern Ontario law firm over allegations it mishandled a compensation claim from a dying St. Anne's residential school survivor.

The Law Society of Ontario's enforcement department began investigating the complaint filed against Wallbridge, Wallbridge, headquartered in Timmins, Ont., last October, according to a copy of a letter from the law society provided to CBC News.

The letter from the law society identifies Peter James Wallbridge, one of the co-founders of the firm, as one of the subjects of the investigation.

The complaint was filed by Sophia Kleywegt, one of the daughters of Bert William Solomon who attended St. Anne's Indian Residential School from 1930 to 1935.

St. Anne's has emerged as one of the most notorious institutions that operated throughout the more than a century long existence of residential schools. The school, which operated in Fort Albany near Ontario's James Bay coast, was known for using a homemade electric chair on students for punishment.

Died before telling his story

Solomon died at 82 in December 2007 at the Timmins, Ont., hospital before getting the opportunity to tell his story to the tribunal created to award compensation for abuse suffered at residential schools, known as the Independent Assessment Process (IAP).

"It is important for us to hear this story and nobody gave him a chance to tell his story, to tell what happened to him," said daughter Sophia Kleywegt.

Kleywegt said she is still waiting on an update on the investigation.

"Here I am, still in limbo," said Kleywegt.

Sophia Kleywegt filed a complaint with the Law Society of Upper Canada over the handling of her father's residential school IAP claim. (Submitted by Sophia Kleywegt)

Kleywegt alleges that Wallbridge, Wallbridge mishandled Solomon's claim by failing to arrange for a Cree interpreter in time to obtaing a statement from her father while he was in hospital dying from colon cancer. The IAP process allows for expedited, hospital bedside hearings. 

"My dad became very ill and they were aware that he was in hospital," said Kleywegt.

"He was getting worse and we called them and told them that we don't know how long he was going to survive…. So they responded that they couldn't get a [Cree] interpreter immediately and that is how they left it."

Kleywegt said they were in contact with a woman they assumed was a lawyer at the firm. It later turned out that she wasn't a lawyer.

Firm denies it took the case

In July 2017, Kleywegt received a letter from James Wallbridge stating that the firm has "no file opened under Bert (William) Solomon's name."

Wallbridge, Wallbridge responded to a request for comment through Toronto lawyer Geoff Adair. Adair, with firm Adair Goldblatt Bieber, said the law society generally investigates all complaints. He said, in an emailed statement, that the firm had responded to the law society and believes the complaint is "without merit." He said Wallbridge, Wallbridge never took on Solomon's case.

The complaint filed with the law society remains unproven. 

Susan Tonkin, a spokesperson for the law society, said in an emailed statement she could not comment on any ongoing investigations or complaints. Tonkin said the law society has a team of people assigned to deal with complaints from Indigenous Peoples.

"The length of time to conduct an investigation varies from matter to matter, depending on the complexity of each case," said Tonkin.

A group of altar boys at St. Anne's Indian Residential School c. 1945 in Fort Albany, Ont. (Edmund Metatawabin collection/Algoma University)

'It gave him nightmares'

Solomon was in-and-out of hospital in Cochrane and Timmins between 2006 and 2007, said Kleywegt.

She said his case was one of a group of cases picked up by Wallbridge, Wallbridge through the Ininew Friendship Centre in Cochrane.

While Solomon was hospitalized, Kleywegt said he revealed the abuse he suffered at St. Anne's for the first time. Solomon told his daughters a teacher at the school had stabbed his hand with a pencil and that he was sexually assaulted by another student at the instruction of the same teacher, she said.

"He suppressed it for so many years," said Kleywegt. 

"It gave him nightmares."

Claim rejected

The family filed an IAP estate claim in February 2011 but it was rejected in August 2015 because they failed to obtain a sworn statement from Solomon before he died or provide eyewitness and medical evidence to support the claim of abuse.

"I have no doubt that the claimant suffered terrible experiences during his attendance at the residential school," wrote deputy chief adjudicator Wes Marsden in his ruling.

"In my experience, very few survivors have been able to recall positive experiences at residential schools…. Despite my sympathies…I am still required to apply the IAP model to the facts of this case."

A representative for the federal government opposed the claim.

Kleywegt said she will continue to fight for her father's case.

"It's just one of the things we promised him we would continue on right to the end," she said.

Wallbridge, Wallbridge faced a complaint in 2016 from another St. Anne's survivor, known in court records as H-15019, who asked for an investigation into why the law firm failed to file evidence to support the survivor's IAP claim.

The law society case is still ongoing and the complaint remains unproven.

H-15019's complaint hinges on Wallbridge, Wallbridge's representation of St. Anne's survivors in a separate civil claim filed in 2003. Thousands of Ontario Provincial Police documents from a 1990s investigation into abuse at St. Anne's were filed during that civil case. H-15019 contends those documents could have supported his IAP claim, which he initially lost. He was awarded compensation after a re-hearing held last year.

Adair said the allegations against Wallbridge, Wallbridge in this case were "ridiculous" and without merit. 

"The whole idea of a plaintiff's lawyer who is operating on a contingent fee hiding documents that benefit their clients is just stupid," said Adair. "Why would anybody do that?"

The OPP documents, along with other records from the Cochrane case, were not used to support any St. Anne's IAP claims until 2014 when an Ontario judge ordered Ottawa to turn over the files.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him