Ottawa initially fought St. Anne's residential school electric chair compensation claims

Ottawa’s lawyers initially fought claims from survivors seeking compensation for suffering caused by a homemade electric chair used for punishment and sport at St. Anne’s Indian residential school, CBC News has learned.

Lawyer says federal government still fighting paying compensation for electric chair abuse

Boys in a classroom c. 1945 at St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. (Edmund Metatawabin collection/Algoma University)

Ottawa's lawyers initially fought claims from survivors seeking compensation for suffering caused by a homemade electric chair used for punishment and sport at St. Anne's Indian residential school, CBC News has learned.

Federal lawyers argued shocks from the chair did not qualify as physical harm despite holding evidence in Ontario Provincial Police documents that described its use at the school which operated in Fort Albany along Ontario's James Bay coast.

Ottawa also fought compensation claims for instances when St. Anne's survivors were forced to eat their own vomit.

St. Anne's survivor Edmund Metatawabin, the former chief of Fort Albany First Nation, said he is aware of instances where survivors did not get compensation for suffering caused by the electric chair or for being forced to eat their own vomit.

"It's a form of torture," said Metatawabin, who described described both experiences in his book, Up Ghost River.

Metatawabin never went through the compensation hearings created by the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement known as the Independent Assessment Process (IAP).

Shocked until 'semiconscious'

Ottawa was forced in 2014 by an Ontario court to release thousands of pages of OPP documents from an investigation launched in the 1990s into abuse claims at St. Anne's.

Survivors described the electric chair as being "high-backed with steel arms," according to court files obtained by CBC News that include summaries of the allegations in the OPP documents.

Edmund Metatawabin, a survivor of St. Anne's residential school in Fort Albany, Ont., says students at the school underwent 'torture.' (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

One former male St. Anne's student, who attended the school between 1957 and 1962, said "a supervising nun would make him sit in an electric chair, tie his his wrists to armrests and administer shocks," the court file states.

"The nun strapped him in the electric chair and electrocuted him until he was semiconscious."

A female student, who attended the school between 1957 and 1964, alleged she was forced to eat her vomit and punished by "electrocution" in the chair.

There were also claims in the file that school officials let students use the chair to test endurance, and that it was used for fun.

"A male former student alleged that when he was six to 11 years old, he was tricked into sitting on an electric chair in the recreation room by a supervising nun and an unidentified religious Brother operated the crank which caused him to receive shocks," said the file.

Trudeau government ordered argument stopped

Ottawa argued against the electric chair and vomit-related compensation claims from 2007, when the settlement agreement came into force, until late 2015, when the Justin Trudeau government ordered an end to the argument.

"Our government believes the actions described are absolutely forms of abuse — to argue otherwise is simply wrong," said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett's office in a statement.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology to residential school survivors in 2008.

Crown-Indigenous Minister Carolyn Bennett's office says the government ordered federal lawyers to stop arguing delivering electric shocks with a homemade electric chair did not count as abuse. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A spokesperson for the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat, which oversees the IAP process, said it does not track claims of "alleged abuse through the use of an electric chair at St. Anne's." Spokesperson Michael Tansey said in a statement the secretariat is aware of least one related claim which Canada did not "support for other reasons" but where the adjudicator did award compensation for suffering caused by the electric chair.

Tansey said 95.2 per cent of St. Anne's claims received compensation, a rate above the 89.2 per cent rate for all residential school claims.

Government still fighting claims

Fay Brunning, who continues to represent several St. Anne's clients, said the government is still opposing paying out compensation for the use of the electric chair.

Brunning could not say how many other survivors were in a similar situation beyond her clients.

Brunning was in Vancouver Friday to argue against Ottawa in court. The federal government went to the Supreme Court of British Columbia seeking clarity on what it said was the IAP chief adjudicator's inconsistent application of "procedural fairness" to reopen claims.

Ottawa argued in court filings that procedural fairness — a basic common law concept that includes a right to an unbiased hearing and disclosure of evidence — did not apply to IAP hearings.

Ottawa singled out seven cases which were overturned on reviews and re-reviews within the IAP that it found troubling. Two of the seven cases were from St. Anne's. In both instances, the decisions were overturned as a result of new evidence surfacing following the initial hearings.

NDP MP Charlie Angus is seeking answers as to why Ottawa suppressed OPP investigation files. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Information watchdog investigating

The federal Information Commissioner is investigating a complaint from Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, who has been trying for more than three years to find an explanation through the Access to Information Act as to why Ottawa kept the OPP documents suppressed.

Justice Canada has released thousands of documents almost completely redacted, except for a few scattered sentences and email addresses, in response to Angus's ATIP requests.

"Children at St. Anne's were subjected to some of the most depraved and evil tortures that have ever happened in Canada," said Angus.

"How is it possible in 2017 that survivors are still fighting Canada?"


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