Indigenous

Supreme Court refuses to hear St. Anne's residential school survivors' appeal

Canada's top court decided Thursday not to hear an appeal by survivors of a Catholic-run residential school near Fort Albany, Ont., in an ongoing dispute with the federal government.

Case relates to government's refusal to disclose documents during residential schools claims process

The sculpture of Ivstitia (Justice) at the Supreme Court of Canada is seen alongside the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in June 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Canada's top court has dismissed an appeal by survivors of a Catholic-run residential school near Fort Albany, Ont., in an ongoing dispute with the federal government over the impact of withheld documents on compensation claims.

The Supreme Court did not offer reasons Thursday morning when it rendered its decision not to hear from the group of St. Anne's survivors, unidentified in court documents but represented by author and former chief Edmund Metatawabin, who have been trying to have their cases reopened.

They contended there were "procedural and jurisdictional gaps" in the lower courts' handling of the case — which has unfolded under the residential schools class-action settlement — and asked the Supreme Court to intervene in a March 1 filing.

Evelyn Korkmaz, a St. Anne's survivor from Fort Albany, had mixed feelings the day before the decision: a sense of optimism tempered by a lack of faith in the Canadian court system.

"It's going to be a big day," Korkmaz said. 

"Hopefully they have the courage to stand up for reconciliation and prove to us that they are going to stand alongside us and uphold our rights."

Evelyn Korkmaz, a survivor of St. Anne's residential school in Fort Albany, Ont., says survivors will seek other avenues if the Supreme Court won't hear their appeal. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Regardless of the decision, the survivors have no plans to stop fighting, Korkmaz said.

"St. Anne's survivors are resilient. We've been fighting for years, and we're going to continue to fight," she said, suggesting they would take the campaign to the international level if the court refuses to hear the case.

"If they decide not to allow us to appeal, we'll have to pursue other avenues."

Korkmaz expressed disappointment following the dismissal.

"I can't see any other reason why Canada doesn't think that this is important enough for them to hear. The justice system does not work for Indigenous people of Canada," she said.

"Justice only exists in the dictionary. It doesn't exist in the justice system of Canada."

Timmins-James Bay New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, a longtime backer, announced the filing in a July news release, calling the move "a damning indictment of the Liberals' record on reconciliation."

The Liberal government, in competing filings, urged the court not to intervene.

Speaking outside the House of Commons on Wednesday, Angus said the decision would "be a really important moment" not just for the survivors, but reconciliation generally.

"All the talk of reconciliation gets blown out the door when you get to the case of St. Anne's," he said.

"This is a serious, serious issue for this government and for the principle of justice in Canada."

He too expressed disappointment in a statement shared Thursday morning.

"It is a sad day for justice in Canada that the Supreme Court has opted to trust the word of the government of Canada over the survivors," the statement said.

Government withheld OPP records

The Supreme Court hears only a slim fraction of the appeals filed with it. Last year, the bench granted eight per cent of the applications seeking leave to appeal, according to court statistics.

The legal dispute dates back to 2007, when the residential school compensation process began. The settlement agreement included a fixed payout for survivors and a claims adjudication mechanism, known as the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), for those who suffered extreme cases of abuse.

The deal required Canada to hand over relevant documents to accurately adjudicate IAP claims, yet the government withheld thousands of pages of provincial police records stemming from a mid-1990s probe into abuse at St. Anne's.

The judge administering the settlement "assumed this was done by mistake" and not deliberate deception, but the withholding of documents left some claimants questioning if they'd suffered yet another injustice.

The survivors aren't looking to have the documents handed over, which the judge ordered years ago, but want their compensation claims reassessed — this time with those records present.

A group of altar boys at St. Anne's residential school around 1945 in Fort Albany, Ont. (Edmund Metatawabin collection/Algoma University)

St. Anne's survivors have recounted stories of harrowing sexual, physical and psychological abuse, including punishment via homemade electric chair and forcing ill pupils to eat their own vomit.

The police probe resulted in convictions for four former school staffers and one Indian Affairs employee on charges including indecent assault, assault causing bodily harm, assault and administering a noxious substance.

The group's push to have claims readjudicated eventually got Ottawa to strike a review.

Claiming St. Anne's advocates like Angus and Murray Sinclair were undermining trust in the settlement agreement, Crown-Indigenous Relations tapped retired judge Ian Pitfield to determine if the lack of disclosure impacted St. Anne's IAP claims.

Pitfield concluded Canada should revisit 11 specific cases involving allegations of student-on-student abuse. The government promised to do it.

In their brief to the Supreme Court, the survivors questioned the Pitfield report, claiming it was rendered without consulting claimants themselves and without rehearings by trained adjudicators.


Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

With files from Olivia Stefanovich

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