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$1.1 billion lawsuit claims abuse at Indian hospitals

While a possible settlement is far away, NWT residents who were sent to Indian Hospitals between 1945 and 1982 may eventually get some restitution from the federal government for alleged substandard care – and far worse.

Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton, Alta.

The $1.1 billion class action lawsuit was filed in January against the Attorney General of Canada by Ann Cecile Hardy, originally from Fort Smith.

“It was a segregated health system that was set up by the federal government originally to deal with primarily if not exclusively with tuberculosis patients but it expanded to include any illness that required hospitalization,” says Steven Cooper, a partner in Cooper Regel, which is partnering with law firm Koskie Minskie to handle the case. Cooper himself grew up in Coral Harbour and Hay River.

Cooper alleges it was set up with no intent to give Indigenous people the same standard of health care non-Indigenous patients at other hospitals would get. The hospitals were run in some cases by churches, provinces or the federal government, and the doctors sometimes did not meet the same standards as they would be held to in normal hospitals.

The following allegations have not yet been proven in court. A class action suit needs first for a judge to recognize that there is a class of people that can go to court and argue about these issues, and as these are early days, even that has not been established.

“You had a group of people—largely but not exclusively children—between 1945 and 1981 that were subject to substandard medical care, repeated instances of sexual and physical abuse, constant reference to their ‘savage nature, culture and language,’ long-term separation from their parents and family in general,” says Cooper.

“You had operations that were done without the knowledge and certainly without the consent of their parents ... Kids tied to beds, kids put in body casts because they’d been bad – not because they should be in body casts for any medical reasons.

“(There were) medical experiments being conducted on children, some of them related to TB, some of them related to things like vitamin deficiency.”

Cooper believe close to 10,000 people may be still alive who attended these hospitals.

After the case was filed, Carolyn Bennett, minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, told media in a scrum at parliament that she hopes her department and the lawyers on Hardy’s side can get together to discuss.

Cooper says he has faith that this will be done in good will.

“I think (the Canadian government has) learned from their past failed defences of these claims, and residential schools in particular, that it’s just a function of when and how this is going to settle,” says Cooper, though noting that he doesn’t want to sound overly optimistic.

He says this particular Liberal government has shown that it might be proactive in getting this situation figured out, though he recognized it needs time to do its own research into the history of this situation.

“Unless this government changes their path and their basic philosophy – and I’m heartened to hear what the minister [Bennett] has said that suggested they won’t – we do believe that this will come to a fair conclusion ... in a reasonable amount of time,” says Cooper.

“It’s a national shame, what happened, much like the residential schools were a national shame.”

For those affected

If you were sent to an Indian Hospital between 1945 and 1982 and believe you’re eligible to be part of the class in the class-action suit, there are some things you need to know.

Lawyer Steven Cooper says there is nothing to sign up for at this time, and there likely won’t be anything soon. These cases take a long time, and this one has hardly just begun.

All that can be done at this point is wait for information.

This information will be posted widely, as required by law, but Cooper says that anyone can contact one of Cooper Regel’s law offices and request to be put on a mailing list and the firm will keep you updated.

If you get on our list, you’ve got the VIP line,” says Cooper. “We’ll feed you the information. You won’t need to find it.”

Fact file:

List of Indian Hospitals

Fort Simpson Hospital (NWT)

Fort Norman Indian Hospital (NWT)

Frobisher Bay Hospital (then-NWT)

Inuvik Hospital (NWT)

Whitehorse Hospital (Yuk.)

Charles Camsell Indian Hospital (Alta.)

Peigan Indian Hospital (Alta.)

Sarcee Indian Hospital (Alta.)

Blood Indian Hospital (Alta.)

Morley/Stoney Indian Hospital (Alta.)

Hobbema Indian Hospital (Alta.)

Blackfoot Indian Hospital (Alta.)

Coqualeetza Indian Hospital (B.C.)

Miller Bay Indian Hospital (B.C.)

Nanaimo Indian Hospital (B.C.)

Fort Qu’Appelle Indian Hospital (Sask.)

North Battleford Indian Hospital (Sask.)

Brandon Indian Hospital (Man.)

Dynevor Indian Hospital (Man.)

Fisher River Indian Hospital (Man.)

Fort Alexander Indian Hospital (Man.)

Clearwater Lake Indian Hospital (Man.)

Norway House Indian Hospital (Man.)

Tobique Indian Hospital (N.B.)

Manitowaning Indian Hospital (Ont.)

Lady Willington Indian Hospital (Ont.)

Squaw Bay Indian Hospital (Ont.)

Moose Factory Indian Hospital (Ont.)

Sioux Lookout Indian Hospital (Ont.)

Source: Statement of claim