By Caitrin Pilkington
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Lawyers for the Federal Indian Boarding Homes (Percival) class-action lawsuit say an agreement-in-principle has been reached with the federal government.
The lawsuit, initiated by Reginald Percival of Nisga’a Nation, was filed in 2018. It focuses on what Indigenous children experienced not at residential schools, but at boarding homes where they were forcibly placed in order to attend public schools.
“Probably almost all of us lived under the same kind of conditions that they had in the residential schools, which was a lot of abuse,” Percival said in an interview with the CBC.
“The abuse was not only physical. It was sexual. It was mental.
We had to deal with a lot of systemic racism. We were not allowed to contact family. We weren’t allowed to write letters or make phone calls.”
The class action covers Indigenous students who were placed in boarding homes between 1951 and 1992. Claimants will receive between $10,000 and $210,000. Between 11,000 and 220,000 people are estimated to be eligible.
But David Klein, a managing partner of Klein Lawyers and lead counsel for the case, isn’t sure how many will be Northwest Territories residents.
While records show that many N.W.T. children were placed in boarding homes to attend school, the issue comes down to the same legal technicality that has prevented other N.W.T. survivors from collecting compensation: confusion over which government is legally responsible for what happened.
“My understanding is that Canada continued to place children in the boarding homes program in the Northwest Territories past that time, but I don’t have all the documentation to confirm that,” said Klein.
“If the children were placed by the territorial government, they would not be members of the class. So that’s something we’ll have to look at carefully. But I don’t have an answer for you today.”
In 1969, the federal government transferred authority over all N.W.T. schools to the territorial government, but in many cases remained active in funding and operating the schools.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that the territorial government didn’t fully devolve from the federal government until 2014.
There is legal precedent to suggest Northwest Territories residents could prove they qualify for federal claims.
In 2018, a Nunavut judge ruled that Canada should still be held responsible for residential schools the federal government asked the GNWT to run. “The funding of the GNWT by Canada and the project of devolution between them was still evolving. Canada remained involved in education-related matters in the Northwest Territories,” that ruling stated.
But the issue remains a legal grey area, even for class action litigators.
“It’s an important point, it’s just something I hadn’t looked at. And it absolutely has to be looked at,” said Klein. “Because we have to be able to provide clarity to the people who contact us.”
An online form for survivors, to see if they qualify for the boarding home class action, is already open to the public.
With the deadline to submit a claim to the Federal Indian Day School class action rapidly approaching on January 13, it’s unlikely these questions will be resolved in time for many survivors of those schools to benefit from compensation.
But as this lawsuit’s deadline has yet to be determined, there may still be time for boarding home survivors to make their case.
For many, the moral and financial recognition these claims present have both a spiritual and practical significance.
“It represents an acknowledgement of a harm that was done to thousands of Indigenous children from coast to coast to coast, and an opportunity to have that recognized, compensated, and for the healing process to begin,” said Klein.
Caitrin Pilkington is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
for CABIN RADIO. The LJI program is federally funded.