Chief Robert Joseph, executive director of the Provincial Residential School Project, said he was deeply shocked and outraged by what he called "the disturbing decision" handed down July 10 by B.C. Chief Justice Brenner in the Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS) civil case.
The three-year-old civil trial involved seven First Nations individuals who sought damages from the government of Canada and the United Church of Canada as a result of experiencing childhood sexual abuse in the federal and church-run residential institution on Vancouver Island, which was closed in 1973.
"Evident in his dismissal of one plaintiff's case, and the unusually low awards in the remaining six, the chief justice has profoundly failed to deliver proper recompense to these courageous individuals, who brought their horror-filled stories of childhood sexual abuse at the residential school into the halls of the Canadian justice system," Joseph said.
The awards to the six plaintiffs range from $12,000 to $190,000. Arthur Plint, the perpetrator of the crimes, is responsible in the range of 13 to 25 per cent in each.
The 82-year-old Plint is currently serving his 11-year sentence for more than 30 counts of physical and sexual abuse. Though he has served more than two-thirds of his sentence, he has been denied parole because he remained untreated and does not accept responsibility for his crimes.
"It is apparent some of these people will receive little or no compensation after paying their legal costs," Joseph said. "Thus, this judgment shows how little value this B.C. Supreme Court case places on the lives of these people and the potential they had ripped away from them. It is this particular aspect of the judgment which is extremely insulting to these plaintiffs, their families, their communities, and their nations and to all First Nations in Canada for the negative message it imparts."
But a strategy based on a questionable concept has played a role in the decision.
Joseph said the government of Canada and the United Church of Canada argued at trial that conditions at the school were so horrific the plaintiffs' past and present personal circumstances could not be avoided, whether or not they had been sexually assaulted.
"The application of this defence strategy in order to minimize their financial liability is depraved and morally indefensible," he added. "The fact that the chief justice seems to have bought into this argument is equally disturbing and shows that Canadian society at the highest levels has not abandoned its abusive ways."
Joseph said the decision can be appealed and he hoped other victims won't be discouraged from seeking justice.
Peter Grant, attorney for the plaintiffs, could not be reached for comment. The plaintiffs have asked the press for a couple of days to consider their options and were not available for comment.
Tony Merchant, of Merchant Law Group in Regina, represents thousands of residential school litigants. He was familiar with the tactics Joseph alleges were employed in this case.
"Particularly the churches raise it," he said. "It's particularly insidious because what they say is, 'First Nations life was not very good anyway and therefore while some bad things happened in the residential school, so what? These people wouldn't have amounted to anything anyway because of poor circumstances on the reserve and you shouldn't compensate the way you would compensate if this was a white person.'"
In comparison, the government of Newfoundland in the mid-90s paid out $11million in compensation to 42 non-Native children sexually or physically abused at the Mount Cashel Orphenage, amounts varying between $150,000 to $500,000 depending on the plantiff's case.