Indigenous

Court-appointed official moves to 'forever' bar 147 residential school cases from compensation hearings

A court-appointed official tasked with transferring thousands of residential school cases from a disgraced Calgary law firm wants to bar 147 claims from ever entering compensation hearings despite evidence some could qualify for payouts, according to recent filings.

Other cases similarly flagged by same law firm later went on to receive compensation

The claims in question were once handled by Calgary law firm Blott & Company and remain to be filed. (Mark van Manen/Vancouver Sun)

A court-appointed official tasked with transferring thousands of residential school cases from a disgraced Calgary law firm wants 147 claims barred from ever entering abuse compensation hearings despite evidence some could qualify for payouts, according to recent filings.

Retired B.C. judge Ian Pitfield requested the B.C. Supreme Court rule the 147 cases be "forever barred" from entering the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), which was created by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to set compensation levels for survivors who suffered abuse, according to a June 6 filing.

However, the body that oversees the IAP said in its own court submission the 147 cases have the "greatest likelihood" of proceeding to an IAP hearing and obtaining compensation from a group of claims that were once handled by Calgary law firm Blott & Company and remain to be filed.

The 147 cases were initially identified by the law firm as not qualifying for the IAP.

The firm and its form-filling subcontractors were banned in June 2012 by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Brenda Brown from handling residential school cases over "manipulative" practices and issuing loans to survivors against future compensation payouts.

The firm, headed by David Blott, represented thousands of residential school survivor clients.

Blott resigned in 2014 from the Law Society of Alberta which found he re-victimized his residential school clients and treated them "like cattle."

Brown will also hear Pitfield's request for direction. She is one of several judges across the country responsible for overseeing the residential schools settlement agreement.

Cases 'cursorily' examined

Pitfield was appointed by the B.C. court to transfer thousands of Blott's residential school cases to other lawyers.

While the majority of the cases were transferred successfully and entered the IAP, 261 remained outstanding, including the 147 identified by Blott's firm as not qualifying for compensation hearings, according to court filings.

Pitfield conducted no legal review of the 147 cases to independently determine whether they were properly categorized as not qualifying for the IAP process, according to his request for direction filed with the B.C. court.

The filing states that Pitfield "did cursorily examine" the cases and found that "those determinations" of not qualifying "could be acceptable as reasonable."

Dan Shapiro, the secretariat's chief adjudicator, said the Blott firm's categorizations could not be trusted, according to his June 18 court submission.

So far, 13 separate cases that were initially categorized by Blott's firm as not qualifying for the IAP have gone through the compensation system and six received awards ranging from $16,000 to $124,000, according to the secretariat's filing.

Shapiro's submission stated the secretariat was prepared to fast-track the 147 cases so they would reach the first hearing stage before an adjudicator by Dec. 1.

Ottawa has so far not taken a position on the issue and is seeking more information, according to a June 18 letter from a Justice Canada lawyer that is part of the court record.

Ottawa lack of action criticized

A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett's office said Ottawa finds the term "forever barred" to be "overly harsh."

NDP MP Charlie Angus said Ottawa's perceived inaction so far on Pitfield's filing seems to continue a troubling pattern. Angus said Ottawa seems more interested in wrapping up the compensation process than ensuring every survivor gets justice.   

"Anytime the IAP has presented problems to the government they have taken the position of stonewall or deny justice and that is completely contrary to the stated principles of reconciliation," said Angus.

CBC News contacted Pitfield's lawyer but received no response.

Lawyers representing independent counsel, who are signatories to the residential schools agreement, plan to challenge Pitfield's request for direction.

"Independent counsel plans to take part in the hearing and will try and seek a different result for claimants," said Montreal-based lawyer David Schulze.

A hearing is scheduled for June 29.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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