Ontario judge stands up with residential school survivors

A lawsuit on behalf of 16,000 Indigenous children in Ontario placed in residential schools may lead to reconciliation following court ruling

By: Manon Busseron

Canada failed to protect thousands of Indigenous childrens’ cultural identities during the “1960s Scoop,” Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba stated.

After an eight-year lawsuit, Ontario judge Edward Belobaba stated that the Canadian government did not fulfill its “duty of care“ to the children by placing thousands of Indigenous children in non-Indigenous families and residential schools. The term “Sixties Scoop“ was coined by Patrick Johnston in 1983, and refers to the forced mass removal of Indigenous children from their families.

Between 1965 and 1984, about 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to residential schools run by the church. The government decided that it was its responsibility to assimilate Indigenous children into white society. They were prevented from speaking their languages and had to abandon their traditional customs. Those who refused to obey were beaten and severely punished. Many were separated from their siblings and faced physical, moral, and sexual abuse.

In his decision, Justice Edward Belobaba acknowledged the psychological harm caused by residential schools and the responsibility of Canada in the loss of Indigenous identities for many of the children at that time, saying that it “left the children fundamentally disoriented, with a reduced ability to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. The loss of Aboriginal identity resulted in psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, unemployment, violence, and numerous suicides,” according to the CBC.

Over one billion dollars are at stake in the lawsuit on behalf of 16,000 Indigenous children from Ontario who claimed being harmed after being sent to a residential school or non-Indigenous homes. Justice Belobaba argued that the state did not respect the child services agreement by failing to consult with First Nations regarding the transfer of children to non-Indigenous environments. The government responded that the consultation would not have changed anything for these children, but Justice Belobaba strongly disagreed, calling this opinion “odd and frankly insulting.“

Justice Belobaba has not settled a financial arrangement yet, but intends to negotiate with survivors. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said that the government will not appeal, but will try to prevent the release of the decision and ask for “technical clarifications.“ Bennett insisted that money was not the most important part of the decision, declaring that “getting their language and culture back, making sure their children will be able to speak the language, and getting their culture back, is so important.“

The lead plaintiff in the action was Marcia Brown Martel from the Temagami First Nation. After being adopted by a non-Indigenous couple when she was nine, Canada “declared her original identity dead.“ She said, “Our voices were finally heard and listened to. . . It is a gain for all of us a step forward and a step closer to reconciliation.“

With files from CBC and Indigenous Foundations at UBC