Residential Church School Scandal | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Residential Church School Scandal

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 26, 2000. Partner content is not updated.

The school is gone now. But the hill where it stood is visible, down a dusty gravel road, from Lorne Pratt's grandmother's house on the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Residential Church School Scandal

The school is gone now. But the hill where it stood is visible, down a dusty gravel road, from Lorne Pratt's grandmother's house on the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan. Sitting at the kitchen table, Pratt looks out the window and remembers the evening when, as a 12-year-old student, he tried to commit suicide on the second floor of the old brick residence - the only way he could think of to escape the constant sexual abuse he had suffered over a five-year period. Now 32, an elegant man with high cheekbones and deep, sad eyes, Pratt recalls how he wrapped an elastic belt around his neck and hanged himself from the metal frame of his bunk bed, feeling the elastic pull, struggling for breath, finally blacking out. He was saved when school employees cut him down and rushed him to a hospital in Regina, where he remained in a coma for five days. When he was finally discharged, he was sent home to his mother, Leona, in Saskatoon - never to return to the school. "It was," Pratt says, "the happiest day of my life."

The story of native residential schools is an ignoble chapter in Canadian history. For more than a century, well over 100,000 aboriginal children attended the institutions, jointly run by Ottawa and four Canadian churches. In all, around 20 per cent of natives, often the poorest from families in crisis, went to the schools. Over the years, politicians and bureaucrats tried to describe the schools in lofty terms; 19th-century documents said the facilities would keep the children "within the circle of civilized conditions" where they would get the "care of a mother." Underlying the lofty rhetoric was one disastrous goal: assimilation by stripping aboriginals of their language and culture.

For generations, the drastically underfunded system subjected defenceless children to emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Among the scarring indignities: children burned with cigarettes and punched in the ear so hard they lost their hearing. Understandably, many victims are now fighting back, demanding compensation for the agonies they endured. What began as a whisper of litigation in the mid-1990s has now become a storm: to date, a staggering 6,324 native plaintiffs (not including class-action suits) are suing the federal government and, in many cases, the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches. Some are seeking damages for sexual and physical abuse, but 90 per cent of plaintiffs also allege cultural loss - a claim as yet untested in the courts. Should these actions be successful, they could cost the government and churches billions of dollars. And potential payouts notwithstanding, legal fees alone, experts say, will almost certainly bankrupt some churches.

In a disturbing turn, the legal chaos has also pitted natives against other aboriginals. Beginning in the late 1960s, when the churches began to withdraw from administering the schools and Ottawa assumed sole responsibility, native workers took on an increasingly important role in the institutions, becoming dormitory supervisors, child-care workers, sports coaches and the like. Some of them, victims allege, helped perpetuate the abuse - even participated in it. "It's been a matter of time, but it's coming out of the woodwork now," says Bobby Nippi, a 31-year-old member of the Kinistin band north of Saskatoon who spent 10 years at Gordon and received a healthy financial settlement in 1997. "People are suing - and they are naming a lot of the native child-care workers." In many cases, native abusers were themselves products of the residential system, underscoring an ugly legacy: in institutionalizing abuse, the schools ensured that those on the receiving end often became abusers themselves.

In the end, that means little to those still trying to come to terms with what they endured as children. Someone must pay, they say, be it churches, governments, natives or non-natives. It is a corrosive battle, one that is fuelled by the aggressive recruiting tactics of lawyers hunting for clients. Ultimately, the lawyers may emerge as the only clear winners in the high-stakes legal manoeuvring. "I worry about the suits being conducted by non-Indian lawyers who don't know a thing about Indians or who don't care," said Patricia Monture-Angus, a professor in the University of Saskatchewan's native studies department. "Now, we're making white millionaires over more Indian pain."

The Gordon reserve lies 100 km north of Regina, containing 145 square kilometres of rolling scrubland and 1,200 inhabitants among whom the unemployment rate is as high as 80 per cent. The residential school was torn down shortly after it closed in 1996, but it has been ground zero in the grim game of litigation. It is the first - and so far the only - such institution for which the federal government, which took it over from the Anglicans in 1969, settled a large number of claims out of court. About 230 plaintiffs, from both on and off the reserve, received between $25,000 and $150,000 each because of sexual abuse they say they suffered at the school. But instead of bringing justice, the federal payouts have stirred up further bitterness. Some plaintiffs now want more and plan to sue again - wondering why their payments were so low when other survivors of institutional sexual abuse, like the victims at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland, received on average three times as much. Still others are angry that many perpetrators of abuse have not been punished.

One who was brought to justice was the school administrator still referred to respectfully as "Mr. Starr" by many of his former students. William Starr worked at Gordon from 1968 to 1984 and was, on the surface, a fatherly figure. He also enjoyed an unimpeded 16-year run of pedophilia at Gordon by enticing impoverished boys into having sex, then buying their silence with money, arcade games and clothes. He took some on trips - on one evening outing to Regina, he left the boys in a car until 2 a.m. while he gambled at a casino - then took them to the Imperial 400 motel and had sex with them. In 1993, Starr pleaded guilty to charges of sexual assault on 10 students and was sentenced to 4½ years in prison. But those convictions do not come close to reflecting the horrible scope of Starr's alleged activities: of the 230 Gordon school plaintiffs who received a federal settlement, all claimed to have been abused by Starr.

Many former Gordon students say Starr was not the only guilty party. Bobby Nippi's brother Faron, 27, of Saskatoon claims that many native workers at the school knew Starr was sexually assaulting students. But they did nothing to stop it. Instead, staffers called the students liars - or humiliated them. "They used to call us 'fag' and 'Starr's baby,' " says Faron Nippi, who spent 14 years at Gordon and has launched his own civil suit for sexual and physical abuse.

Others remember being abused by the native staff. Among them is native artist Miles Anderson, 33, who spent eight years at the Gordon school and received a $50,000 settlement because of abuse by Starr. One of 16 children, Anderson lost his mother at the age of 6. A year later, he was sent to Gordon. Anderson and a friend often tried to run away. The man usually sent to bring them back, Anderson says, was brutal. Once, he recalls, he picked Anderson up by the hair and threw him against a wall. And Anderson remembers another beating by the same worker, administered when he was 11: "He banged our heads together so hard he knocked us both out cold. Then he beat us after we were out."

In 1997, Pratt was among those who received a federal payout for abuse suffered at Gordon. But Starr, he says, was not the only person who terrorized him. Pratt, who now lives just off the Gordon reserve in Punnichy, claims that an aboriginal dorm supervisor came to his bed one night and raped him. "That man shouldn't get away with it," says his mother, one of three generations of her family who attended residential school. Another man who refused to be named told Maclean's that this same supervisor, who often came to work late smelling of alcohol, repeatedly assaulted him where he slept: dormitory Room 209. "The thing about abuse is that it keeps coming back," he said, growing agitated as he recalled his experiences. "Now I'm trembling. I get anxiety attacks. I don't feel like going out anywhere."

Some native abusers have already appeared before the courts. In 1993, William Strongeagle, a former judo instructor at the school, was convicted of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old former Gordon student, Betty Nippi, in May, 1988 - while his wife watched. He received a year on probation and a $735 fine. Nippi, who says she was taken in by the couple after falling on hard times when she left the school, says she was not alone in attracting Strongeagle's unwanted attention. "He would befriend young girls at the school, sign them out for the weekend and then buy them drinks and drugs," says the now-30-year-old woman, who just graduated with a certificate in business administration from the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College.

Meanwhile, at least four women have filed lawsuits against Melvin McNab, a native child-care worker at Gordon, alleging sexual and physical assault. Another native child-care worker at Gordon, Greg Bratushesky, is being sued for physical abuse. (None of the allegations against the two workers has been tested in court.) During his time at the school, Bratushesky was officially reprimanded on a number of occasions by the Indian affairs department for brutality. Tony Merchant, a Regina lawyer whose firm is handling thousands of residential-school lawsuits, says that about 25 per cent of his cases involve alleged native abusers.

But abuse begets abuse - and many say it all began with a rotten system. "It is learned behaviour," says Bob Joseph, chief of the Gwa-wa-enuk band and the executive director of the B.C. residential-school project in Vancouver, founded in 1994 to provide counselling for abuse victims. "We have a lot of pedophiles in our own communities - and they learned this in residential school." Former students say that was certainly the case at Gordon, where the dorms were volatile, dangerous places filled with physical violence and sexual predators. Faron Nippi blames Starr, saying that the administrator taught the boys to have sex with one another. "The weaker ones were the sexual prey to the stronger ones," adds his brother Bobby. "They were like the ladies of the dorm. We were groomed to be sexual offenders."

The lawsuits will take years to wind their way through the courts. As far as the Gordon school is concerned, the federal government put the brakes on any more settlements after complaints that some natives had made up allegations against Starr just to get money. "I know someone who never spent a night in that school and he got more money than I did," says Anderson. "I had people coming to me and saying, 'Hey, if I made up a story, what would I have to say?' "

But Ottawa has also indulged in some fancy legal dancing. Last year, the justice department named the Gordon band as a co-defendant in three abuse lawsuits. (Indian Affairs officials say they may take similar action with at least four other reserves because of the number of alleged native abusers named in suits.) The government maintains that from 1975 until the closure of the Gordon school in 1996, the band had an advisory board in place that was responsible for administering the school - and by implication, was probably aware of what was happening. That is certainly the view of some Gordon victims. "We have leadership that has gone through this system and now they want to cover it up," says Bobby Nippi. "They could have stopped it. But our bands were not there for us then and they don't give a rat's ass about us now."

Bryan McNabb, Gordon's current chief, disputes that assertion, although he admits there were "rumours" about abuse. As for Ottawa's move to name his band as a co-defendant, he calls it "re-victimizing the victims - Indians never asked for these schools." Maybe not. But in the 1940s and 1950s, during parliamentary hearings on revising the Indian Act, a slim majority of Indian bands, as well as regional and national native organizations, said they were in favour not only of residential schools but also of keeping the religious component. In the 1960s, when the churches and federal government wanted to close certain schools, some Indian bands pleaded to have them remain open. "There were a variety of reasons why communities desired the retention of the residential facilities," says J. R. Miller, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the author of Shingwauk's Vision, a well-respected 1996 book about native residential schools. "It all depended on the degree to which the community could mobilize."

In communities where there was a lot of family breakdown, residential schools provided a much-needed social service. They were also a source of native employment. In a 1962 letter, Ruth Gorman, the lawyer representing then-Chief George Labelle and the councillors of Alberta's Stoney band implored the United Church to stop the government from closing the area school. "It will be a great tragedy if this famous United Church mission school is closed. The Indians are only asking for a halfway chance to educate their children." The school survived for seven more years. Today, hundreds of members of the Stoney band and other local bands are suing the federal government; ironically, one is Madeline Labelle, the niece of the former chief who once fought to keep the school open.

Natives want justice, but the flood of residential-school litigation is also being fed by some lawyers who smell a financial bonanza. Their aggressive recruiting tactics - and contingency fees that run as high as 40 per cent - have raised the ire of many aboriginal leaders. No one is denying that natives should have the right to pursue claims. Some aboriginal spokesmen, though, complain that the high legal fees are exploitative - and that the adversarial court system may not be the proper venue for dredging up painful memories.

The search for clients continues, however. A year ago, Connie Dieter, who worked as the director of justice for Saskatchewan's File Hills Qu'Appelle Tribal Council, attended a native information meeting organized by aboriginal clients of a Regina law firm. Dieter arrived to champion an alternative dispute-resolution process that would be set up by Indian Affairs to mediate claims. Meanwhile, though, forms from the law firm were handed out to the 20 people in the room, who then broke into small groups to discuss what happened to them at residential school and "trigger memories" for one another. Dieter was appalled at the firm's tactics. "They were flashing the promise of money at these people who were poor," she says. "Triggering emotions like that was dangerous and irresponsible. I told them they were despicable - I called them bottom feeders." Dieter was asked to leave - by the natives.

The recruiting tactics have taken many forms. Some lawyers have obtained school class lists and band lists - then hired "headhunters" on reserves to organize meetings. Others have posted notices in bars and native friendship centres. Most have fanned out to reserves, looking for residential-school alumni. Some of the tactics have raised ethical eyebrows: last June, the Law Society of Saskatchewan faxed a rule change to every law firm in the province clamping down on pressure tactics towards those deemed to be in a "weakened state." Arthur Anderson, a 63-year-old native minister who was ordained into the Anglican Church in 1988, has been disgusted by some of the antics. "These lawyers show up any time there's an Indian gathering," says Anderson, who looks after five rural parishes from his home base in Lumsden, Sask. "They are taking advantage of a passive people who have had their will and intellect taken away by the government and the churches."

Not so, says Halifax lawyer John McKiggan, who for the past four years has represented an organization of former students of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, run by the Catholics. Of the 2,000 surviving students who attended the school, McKiggan has "tracked down" about 900 - some who have moved as far away as Florida. When he started, he had one huge problem. He knew the government was only settling sexual abuse claims and he had none that would stand up in court. Undeterred, McKiggan, who confers monthly with residential-school lawyers across the country, says he came up with a solution: "I said, 'Let's not just go after sexual abuse, let's start a suit on behalf of everyone who ever attended the school because even kids who never had a hand laid on them came out with horrible emotional scars.' "

That kind of blanket condemnation enrages a sizable minority of former students, some of whom still practise the faith of the institution they attended or regularly keep in touch with instructors. Some go so far as to say that despite some terrible times with a sadistic teacher, they were better off at residence. Irene Hoff is an 81-year-old member of the Odanak reserve outside Montreal. In 1930, at the age of 10, she was sent to the Chapleau Anglican Indian Residential School in Northern Ontario where she lived for seven years. One of 10 children from an impoverished family, she went, Hoff says, "with my mother's blessing - she wanted me to get an education." She recalls that, contrary to popular belief, no government or church official forced her mother to send her children to school. Hoff, who worked as an administrative assistant in Indian Affairs after her schooling, says the only abuse she saw was from older girls brutally bullying younger ones. Residential-school litigation, she says, is all about money. "It's a sore point with me, all this bad-mouthing of the schools," Hoff adds. "If a lawyer came to my door, I wouldn't let him in."

Others have. Regina lawyer Merchant has used the instincts of a bloodhound, aboriginal contacts in the four western provinces, letters and advertisements in the native media to amass 4,300 clients. "Once word got around that we were interested, our market share took off," says the tall, lean lawyer. "We have toll-free lines. One woman at a healing lodge in Hobbema has sent me more than 200 clients." Merchant maintains that the court system is the best way for residential-school survivors to get "financial and emotional closure" for the ills they suffered.

Merchant's seven-page solicitation letter includes a sample retainer agreement. It starts with an invitation: "We write to encourage you to join with others who are suing the federal government for wrongdoing in the Indian residential schools." The letter asks potential clients to fill out a two-page questionnaire. Among the requested information: "Describe, in as much detail as you can, any abuse of any form that you may have suffered"; and "Do you recall the names of anyone who approached you sexually or did sexual things to you against your will? If you do not recall their names, do you recall whether they were male or female, and whether they were white. This would include staff or other students."

Such tactics have raised the ire of the Law Society of Saskatchewan, which recently levelled three charges against Merchant. And not all former residential-school students have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. Last year, in response to entreaties by Merchant, one Saskatchewan native blasted back. "I will not tell you again, leave me the f-- alone," came the reply neatly typed on the Merchant solicitation. "In the residential school, I learned how to fend for myself. I also learned how to work so I do not need any of your little settlement dollars. I will not tell you again to leave me alone. Next time, I will sue you for harassing me." In the legal chaos now surrounding residential schools, that would be the ultimate irony: the lawyers themselves being sued.

The Legacy of Shame

1879: Sir John A. Macdonald's government decides to set up church-run boarding schools in order to remove native children from their homes and begin assimilating them into white culture.

1894: Bowing to pressure from missionaries, Ottawa passes an amendment to the Indian Act making attendance for native children mandatory at the schools.

1947: The United Church wants residential schools shut down in favour of non-denominational day schools, citing harm to children in being separated from their families. Over the next two decades, many do close.

1969: Ottawa takes over full management of the 60 remaining schools from the churches.

1973: A new federal policy gives control of native education to the bands and tribal councils.

1986: The United Church becomes the first church to apologize to its native congregations.

1989: The first residential school lawsuit is filed in British Columbia.

1990: Phil Fontaine, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations and then-leader of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, states publicly that he was sexually and physically abused at the residential school in Fort Alexander, Man., during the 1950s.

1996: Former students of the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland, which was run by the Christian Brothers, settle sexual abuse claims with the provincial government for $11 million, adding to the momentum for natives to also press for damages. In that same year, the $58-million Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples releases its report denouncing the effects of native residential schools.

1996: The last residential school in Canada, on the Gordon reserve in Saskatchewan, closes its doors and is subsequently torn down.

1998: Then-Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart offers an apology to natives for residential schools and announces the establishment of a $350-million healing fund.

2000: The number of individual plaintiffs in residential-school lawsuits reaches 6,324, as churches begin to publicly voice concerns that the legal process will bankrupt them.

Maclean's June 26, 2000