A local law firm is looking at restoring justice for Indigenous persons affected by “Indian Day Schools” in Bonnyville.
Grey Wowk Spencer LLP has filed a lawsuit against the Federal & Provincial Government, as well as the Catholic Archdiocese and School Board for their involvement in the programming at Ecole Notre Dame school that operated in Bonnyville from 1964 to 1975. It is important to note that this is not the same school as the current school of the same namesake that is in operation today in the community.
The claim is unique to the community and the firm, because it involves people from Kehewin.
Previous to 1964, there was a day school that was ran by the federal government in Kehewin. It wasn’t a school where kids would live. Kids would live in their homes and then taken to the school.
Indian Day School in Bonnyville
In 1964 the federal government closed that school and at that time there were no schools in Kehewin. To accommodate the children, the provincial and federal governments and Catholic archdiocese bussed all the kids from Kehewin into Bonnyville. Most of the children were taken to a school called Ecole Notre Dame.
“Unfortunately, based upon the accounts that were given from the students that attended there, from 1964 to 1975, they suffered to the same abuses that had happened at the residential schools,” explained Indigenous rights lawyer, Leighton Grey.
Accounts include students being told that if they spoke their native language and not french, they would be struck with rulers, rods and hair pulled.
“It was all the same panoply of abuse that has come to light over the residential schools inquiry that have come to light, in Canada, over the last 20 years,” stated Grey.
Awareness & Justice
Through the suit, the firm hopes to achieve two things; awareness and measure of justice.
“Some of these people we meet are in their 60s and 70s and when they recall these incidents they weep. They are scarred for life.” Grey explained that the firm hopes to bring to light the abuses the people of Kehewin suffered.
The firm also hopes to have some justice applied. “Obviously, you can’t restore an adult person to the person they were before they were abused. In the same way you can’t restore a person who was in a horrible motor vehicle accident. What the legal system does is say here’s money, based on the assumption that money does not make life better, but it does make it more liveable.”
“Cultural genocide was perpetrated against Indigenous people, really at the most innocent stage of their lives. It was a form of indoctrination,” stated the litigator.
“In Canada we had a very orchestrated, clear program, that was designed to exterminate First Nations cultures, religions and traditions. To assimilate young people into a broader European culture. This is what’s at the heart of the Indian residential program.”
A result of this “program” was the breakdown of family, said Grey. “The family is the core unit of our society and what the residential schools did was breakdown that family unit. Now we have young people, generationally, that have no understanding of why they don’t have a sense of family.”
Grey Wowk Spencer LLP
The firm has been involved in Indigenous rights litigation since the late 1990s. Grey explains he became passionate about bringing awareness to the injustices of Indigenous people through his family history.
Grey’s grandmother was raised in a residential school in Brandon, Manitoba. It was because of her he is so passionate about the cause.
“Some of the things she went through there, became part of my own experience, living with my father.”
Through his work as a lawyer in the region, Grey discovered that were a lot of people who were involved in or attended Indian residential schools.
Leighton began going out to communities in the area and recording stories to learn more. “Over a period of 20 years it’s developed into a large area of our practice, at Grey Wowk Spencer LLP.”
Grey was involved in the original class-action suit that cumulated in the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. As a part of that he represented over 400 claimants.
The law firm is also part of a claim against Indian Hospitals.
Grey Wowk Spencer LLP has close to 100 claimants in the Ecole Notre Dame claim. Grey estimates that’s less than 1/5 of the potential claimants that could come forward.