St. Anne's residential school survivors want mediation, say Ottawa keeps fighting claims

Survivors from an Indian residential school that used a homemade electric chair for punishment want the federal government to enter into mediation to settle their claims.

Ottawa has gone to court to stop reopening of more residential school cases

Stella Chapman, a St. Anne's residential school survivor, stands outside the Justice Canada building in Ottawa Monday during a rally in support of her case. (CBC)

Survivors from an Indian residential school that used a homemade electric chair for punishment want the federal government to enter into mediation to settle their claims.

Three survivors from St. Anne's Indian residential school made the call Monday during a news conference in Ottawa with NDP MP Charlie Angus.

The survivors accused the federal government's lawyers of suppressing and denying evidence of widespread abuse at the school which operated in Fort Albany, Ont., along the James Bay coast.

They said the government has played legal hardball during hearings under the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), which was created by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement to determine compensation amounts.

"We are dealing with the fundamental breach of rights," said Angus.

"We need to deal with the fact that the government, in suppressing all that evidence and presenting a lie in those hearings, they were denied justice…. The only venue the survivors have is to shame the government into sitting down."

Angus said a retired judge needs to be appointed to oversee the mediation.

Nothing stopping Ottawa from mediation

The federal government has been loath to enter into negotiations to settle residential school claims, said David Schulze, a Montreal lawyer who handles residential school cases. Schulze said Ottawa prefers IAP hearings where survivors submit a claim before an adjudicator which can be challenged by federal lawyers. 

The wording of the residential school settlement agreement doesn't prevent the chief adjudicator, who oversees the process, from appointing a mediator, said Schulze.

"Nothing stops them, not a darn thing," he said.

St. Anne's Indian Residential School survivors Angela Shisheesh, left, and Stella Chapman, right, speak during a news conference in Ottawa Monday. (CBC)

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde issued a statement Monday afternoon backing the St. Anne's survivors' request. 

"We join their call for Canada to put aside court battles and work with them to reach a negotiated settlement that will help in their journey to healing," said Bellegarde in the statement.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett's office appeared to signal a willingness to negotiate.

"As these remaining unresolved cases are often among the most complex and difficult, our government is committed to finding fair ways to address these individual cases," said Bennett's office in a statement.

"Former students of Indian residential schools should receive all compensation to which they are entitled under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement."

Cases from St. Anne's, which was run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns, have been marred by Ottawa's decision to initially sit on thousands of documents from an Ontario Provincial Police investigation launched in the 1990s that led to charges and convictions of former school staff.

Despite having evidence from the OPP case, Ottawa, under the previous Stephen Harper government, took the position during IAP compensation hearings that there was no documented proof of sexual abuse or student-on-student abuse at St. Anne's.

That changed in 2014 after a court ordered Ottawa to hand over the police documents that itemized allegations of widespread abuse at the school, including sexual assaults, the use of a homemade electric chair for punishment and sport, and beatings of students by staff with beaver snare wire.

'I felt ashamed'

The court ruling came too late for survivor Stella Chapman who lost her IAP student-on-student abuse compensation claim in 2013 because she couldn't prove staff at the school had known or should have known about the sexual abuse.

Chapman was forced to attend St. Anne's when she was about seven years old after spending a year in a Toronto hospital recovering from burns caused by a house fire.

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

"That hurt me deeply and I felt ashamed," said Chapman, during the news conference.

Chapman said she didn't know about the release of the police documents until 2016 when she saw a posting on Facebook. After she hired a new lawyer, it was discovered there was evidence showing her abuser had in turn been abused by a staff member at St. Anne's.

Chapman's IAP case has been reopened and she is headed for a new hearing.

On Friday, the federal government informed Chapman's lawyer that it acknowledged staff at St. Anne's knew or should have known about student-on-student abuse — a key component of these types of cases — opening the way for Chapman to have a successful claim on a second try.

Ottawa is now trying to head off the reopening of additional IAP cases under similar circumstances. The federal government went to the B.C. Supreme Court late last year to argue survivors don't have a right to "procedural fairness" in IAP hearings, meaning they have lesser legal rights than those in other judicial or quasi-judicial processes.

Chapman's case is one of seven cases Ottawa identified as problematic.

"[Ottawa is] trying to make sure no other survivors whose rights have been violated can reopen their case," said Chapman.

"If the government has evidence that proves our cases, they don't care. The government workers are against us. I am a Canadian citizen. I was abused as a child, forced to live in this awful government school."

Bennett's office said the government is simply seeking clarity from the court.


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