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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Action over decades of child abuse in youth homes includes Cree members

BY Ben Powless Feb 26, 2021

A new class-action lawsuit alleges decades of abuse against girls and boys throughout Quebec’s child-welfare system. 

Filed on behalf of those who attended reception centres for boys and girls over the past 30 years, the lawsuit alleges the Quebec government was aware of the abuse but did nothing to address it.

The Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay is named as one of the administrative institutions in the lawsuit. 

According to Lev Alexeev, the lead lawyer behind the case, the suit could potentially involve tens of thousands of victims. He is seeking $500,000 in damages from the province, in addition to punitive damage compensation. Alexeev says that the main objective of the lawsuit is to stop these practices from continuing.

The lead plaintiff, Eleanor Lindsay, met other people who had attended the reception centres on social media and discussed the harm they had suffered as kids. They then approached Novalex, which initially filed the lawsuit in October 2019.

Christopher Stephen, of Waskaganish, attended a group home in Chibougamou and ended up in a reform school in Val-d’Or.

“I was institutionalized at a younger age, locked up in a room, sent for reclusion every time I was in trouble. I would spend days, maybe weeks there,” Stephen told the Nation. “It was a form of abusing children, locking them up and throwing away the key.”

Stephen, the oldest son of Chief Billy Diamond, said he spent half of his teenage years in such institutions in the mid-1980s before being released at 18. He said one of the administrators told him he should be sent to prison, and that he didn’t belong in society. 

He says that there were Cree youth, both boys and girls, as well as Inuit youth placed together, with francophone youth held in another area. Stephen says he tried to run away twice from the institution.

“They always used to lock me up, when I was sleeping in my own room,” he said. “I was never really allowed to do anything, there was always a form of authority, they always put a tag on me, telling me I’m just a number.”

Beyond compensation, Stephen hopes that people will find healing from the “trauma and wounds” of reform schools. “Before reform school there was residential school which became reform schools after they closed. They still abused people, abused children, telling them it’s the kids’ fault,” Stephen said. 

He says it’s time that the Cree who attended tell their stories, and that many Cree and Inuit children would be happy to see someone standing up for them. “It was not a place to call home. You were just a child.”

Leith Hamilton also went through the child-welfare system and went on to get a master’s degree and work in youth protection, where he saw firsthand the impact the child-welfare system was having on young people. He began advocating back in the 1970s against the abuse in the system and speaking out to the media.

While Hamilton says that he was personally lucky to find a way to deal with his own anger and other issues, many others he knew were not so lucky. “A lot of the kids I know end up in adult penitentiary systems, or in addictions, or are abused,” he observed.

Hamilton says the lawsuit “kicks the government in the balls,” noting that if it succeeds, it will force the government to acknowledge negligence. He sees this is the main way to force the government to change its actions.

Hamilton says that there are still a disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous kids in these institutions, and that they tend to stay in the system with worse outcomes than other youth. 

“The impact of the child-welfare system is that you’re taken away from your community, your family and friends, similar to what happened to the Indigenous community. When you go back home, you’re a stranger to family, friends and community,” he said. “You’re ashamed, you carry that shame around, that secret, and you don’t tell anyone.”

Hamilton says he hopes to raise awareness of how people can use their power to create change.

Alexeev says the lawsuit could last several years if it is contested all the way to the Supreme Court.

“Ideally, what we want is the government to accept responsibility and to accept the harm and negotiate a fair compensation for the members,” Alexeev said. 

The law firm will answer any questions or hear from anyone who may want to be included in the case at Novalex.co

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.