Judge awards rare advance costs to Indian sanatorium school survivor

In what he called a “bizarre and lamentable” motion, an Ontario Superior Court judge has taken the “extra-extra ordinary” measure of awarding $70,000 in advance costs to an aboriginal woman seeking to bring a class action on behalf of the former students of Fort William Sanatorium School.

There’s evidence that aboriginal children who needed hospitalization for tuberculosis were sent to a sanatorium and schooled Fort William Sanatorium School, said Justice Paul Perell, but the school is not among the recognized residential schools under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, a contract signed in 2006.

Henry is seeking to have the Northwestern Ontario school listed as a residential school under the agreement, but Canada argues the sanatorium, while residential, was a health facility and therefore the responsibility of a board of directors first, and later, the Province of Ontario.

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Lawyers and non-profits refuse to take up cases like this one because of there is no established process to obtain remedies for students who went to schools like Fort William Sanatorium School. Getting those institutions recognized as residential schools is onerous and costly.

“It is a lamentable motion, because, for a variety of reasons, ‘nobody’ was prepared to provide legal services to Mrs. Henry, unless she obtained an advance costs award for the [request for direction]. At least 18 lawyers were asked to take the legal brief, but for a variety of reasons, they all declined,” Perell wrote.

“In the discussion below, I shall identify most of them by initials, because I do not wish to shame them, and because having regard to the entrepreneurial access to justice model that governs class proceedings, it is understandable, but sad, that all the lawyers declined the Sanatorium School RFD brief.”

Henry — who is 82-years-old, disabled, unemployed, and impoverished — could not by herself bring the request for direction under IRSSA. Edward Sadowski, a researcher who has helped up to 1,000 aboriginal claimants with respect to claims under the IRSSA, filed the request on her behalf but failed to obtain legal assistance to advance it.

The motion was “bizarre,” according to the judge, because the very question of who was bringing it was in dispute. Canada argued Sadowski, who is not aboriginal and did not attend a residential school, was the person bringing the application and seeking advance costs.

But Perell disagreed. “Mr. Sadowski did initiate the RFD, but it was never his RFD, and why he should be treated as if he were a busybody stirring up litigation, when he has no personal financial interest in having the Fort William Sanatorium School listed as an IRS and has spent 17 years helping claimants, totally escapes me,” he wrote.

“In any event, in my opinion, Mrs. Henry has done enough to show that she is impecunious and an advance costs award is her last resort to access to justice,” Perell added.

He ordered the federal government to pay Henry $70,000 in advance costs as well as the cost of the motion.

Christa Big-Canoe, legal director at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, says Perell’s ruling is “a significant win.”

“It speaks to the need to recognize that things don’t always fit into a box laid out in a settlement agreement,” says Big-Canoe. “It speaks to recognizing there are more survivors of this type of colonial legacy and it will provide an opportunity for those survivors to at least have their day in court.”

Big-Canoe says aboriginal students were, at times, sent to sanatoriums for being unco-operative, deemed “insane,” or otherwise sick. In some cases, the residential schools they attended before going to a sanatorium would take their names off the attendance roll, leaving them with no record of having attended a recognized residential school.

In some cases, the students only ever attended sanatorium schools, and “atrocities” have taken place in those schools as well.

“It becomes a Catch 22; they’re not being recognized,” she says.

Big-Canoe says while unfortunate, it’s understandable that both private practitioners and non-profits like her organization are reluctant to take up cases like Henry’s. When a person is seeking to have a school recognized officially as an Indian residential school, there are huge disbursement costs as well as dozens of hours of work with no guarantee of success, she says.

From a non-profit perspective, “we would be putting out all that money and time and the reality is if the process isn’t going to accept the claimant’s application, it’s money that could have been used for a person who would fit within the claim parameters,” adds Big-Canoe.

According to Perell, the case is an example of a “pandemic” issue in class proceedings as well.

“In a problem which has become pandemic in class actions, class counsel are not much interested in small value cases,” he wrote. “The entrepreneurial model for class actions works wonderfully well for many cases, but actions for a declaration that might help a small group are not a success story for the class action regime. Support for the individual issues part of a class action is also becoming an access to justice problem.

“I am not to be taken to be critical of the 18 lawyers who declined Mrs. Henry’s brief. I also am not to be taken to be critical of the entrepreneurial model chosen by the Legislature. I am only saying that class actions are only a partial solution to serious access to justice problems,” Perell continued.

“The sad truth is that Mrs. Henry, despite the valiant efforts of Mr. Sadowski, cannot obtain access to justice because she is too poor to pay for it.”

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