Sixties Scoop survivor files Alberta law society complaint against lawyer on healing foundation board

Tony Merchant, one of the lawyers appointed to sit on a healing foundation created by the Sixties Scoop settlement agreement, is facing a law society complaint in Alberta from a Sixties Scoop survivor.

Complaint filed against Sask. lawyer Tony Merchant of Merchant Law Group

Saskatchewan lawyer Tony Merchant is facing a law society complaint in Alberta filed by a Sixties Scoop survivor. (CBC)

One of the lawyers appointed to sit on a healing foundation created by the Sixties Scoop settlement agreement is facing a law society complaint in Alberta from a Sixties Scoop survivor.

Peter Van Name, 47, filed a complaint against Saskatchewan lawyer Tony Merchant, of Merchant Law Group, on Wednesday with the Law Society of Alberta, according to a copy of the complaint provided to CBC News.

Van Name's complaint states he is seeking to have Merchant disbarred.  

The $875 million Sixties Scoop settlement agreement sets aside $750 million for all status First Nations and Inuit children placed into foster care or adopted by a non-Indigenous parent between 1951 and 1991.

Merchant was appointed as one of the founding members of the $50 million Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation created by the agreement. The remaining $75 million of the settlement is earmarked for lawyers' fees.

The healing foundation, which also includes Federal Court Justice Michel Shore as a director, was incorporated days before Shore approved the settlement agreement on May 11 following hearings in Saskatoon.

Shore's involvement in approving a deal he also brokered is the subject of a separate judicial complaint filed by another Sixties Scoop survivor.

Merchant filed a Sixties Scoop claim on behalf of Van Name in Alberta in 2011. Van Name's case was included in the  Sixties Scoop agreement-in-principle finalized in November 2017.

"He never told me anything that was going on," said Van Name, in an interview with CBC News.

"He doesn't tell his clients anything."

Van Name said his mother was forced to give him up for adoption by Catholic nuns in Edmonton. He said his mom had run away from Holy Angels Indian Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., and had sought refuge with the nuns.

Van Name is Mikisew Cree and was adopted out to a family in New Jersey.

Susan Bourassa, Merchant's assistant, said the lawyer did not know anything about the complaint.

"You will have to wait until he finds out something about the complaint," said Bourassa.

'He has not acted in good faith'

Van Name's Law Society of Alberta complaint is based on concerns outlined in a letter he sent on Tuesday to the Federal Court seeking to make submissions on the $37.5 million in fees three law firms involved with the federal portion of the settlement agreement are seeking to receive. Merchant Law Group is one of the three.

The fees were deemed "excessive" by Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba.

Federal Court Justice Michael Phelan is expected to rule on the fee issue soon. The matter was de-linked from the settlement agreement.

Sixties Scoop survivor Peter Van Name filed a complaint with the Law Society of Alberta against lawyer Tony Merchant. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Van Name said the statement of claim filed on his behalf by Merchant in Alberta did not reflect what he told the law firm.

Van Name said he instructed Merchant to amend his claim in October 2017 but the request was ignored. Van Name said he fired Merchant a few months later and the law firm returned his documentation in March.

"His lack of care and professional misconduct obviously has been overlooked by all the parties as he has not acted in good faith in representing my interests," he wrote.

Van Name said he paid Merchant $2,000 to take on his case in 2000 and heard from his office only a handful of times in the years that followed.

"The law group never even met with me. They always had me sending stuff in their office about my adoption and stuff like that," said Van Name, in an interview.

Allegation supported by Federal Court filing

Van Name's allegation that Merchant did little on his case for years is supported by filings submitted to the Federal Court by Koskie Minsky, which is another of the law firms party to the settlement agreement.

An April 27, 2017 letter signed by Koskie Minsky partner Kirk Baert alleges Merchant did little to advance Van Name's case in the courts for five years after filing his claim on Aug. 18, 2011.

The letter was part of a heated squabble between Toronto-based Koskie Minsky, Merchant Law Group and Vancouver-based Klein Lawyers before the Federal Court over the Sixties Scoop case. The three firms eventually agreed to jointly negotiate the settlement agreement.

Kirk Baert, a partner with Koskie Minsky, said in a letter that two of the other main law firms involved in the Sixties Scoop settlement agreement had failed their clients by letting claims languish for years. (www.kmlaw.ca)

In the letter, Koskie Minsky stated that it took "considerable issue" with Merchant and Klein "being permitted to represent class members...due to years of wasted time and resources and inaction in their various provincially filed 'Sixties Scoop' cases," according to the letter.

David Klein, managing partner for Klein Lawyers, could not be reached for comment.

In another Sixties Scoop legal battle before the Manitoba court, Koskie Minsky said the Merchant Law Group and Tony Merchant had been "repeatedly sanctioned by the courts" for "conflicts of interest, unethical behaviour and deceitful misconduct," according to June 2016 filings.

Baert said in an email to CBC News the issue was a matter of "ancient history" and "once negotiations began all of the firms contributed in a significant way."

Van Name said he doesn't support the settlement agreement or the richness of the lawyer fees.

"The lawyers that want to put their hands into this thing, all they want is the money," said Van Name.

A total of $75 million was originally set aside for lawyer fees in the settlement agreement. They were to be split 50-50 between the three law firms handling the Federal Court portion of the deal and the two law firms handling the Ontario portion.

The Law Society of Alberta did not return a request for comment.

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About the Author

Jorge Barrera

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Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He is currently working for the CBC Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa.