‘So they can be at peace’: St. Anne’s residential school survivors still fight for justice

The institution closed in 1976. The litigation continues to this day. Here’s a 29-year timeline of how the St. Anne’s case developed
By Nick Dunne - Published on Jun 17, 2021
 St. Anne’s was operated from 1902 until 1976 by the Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Sisters of the Cross. (Courtesy of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre)



Since the remains of 215 children were discovered at the Kamloops residential school in late May, communities across the country have mourned and called for action. While the federal government recently settled a class-action suit with day-scholars, litigation against others continues. Survivors of St. Anne’s residential school, in Fort Albany, for example, have been in court with the government for eight years. 

On June 7, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh brought forward a motion calling on the government to end its litigation with residential-school survivors, including those of St. Anne’s, and to provide a progress report within 10 days. It received unanimous support from the House of Commons (although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet and some backbenchers abstained). 

St. Anne’s, located on the western shores of James Bay, was operated from 1902 until 1976 by the Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate (who were also responsible for running the Kamloops school) and the Grey Sisters of the Cross. Court documents and survivor testimonies from the Fort Albany institution describe widespread physical abuse and sexual abuse; children were whipped, beaten, forced to eat their own vomit, and shocked in a homemade electric chair. 

a black and white photo of a building
 St. Anne's residential school was located in Fort Albany. (Courtesy of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre)

In 2007, the parties to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement — the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history — agreed on an out-of-court process intended to compensate survivors of abuse. In 2012, however, lawyer Fay Brunning discovered that more than 12,000 pages of an Ontario Provincial Police investigation into St. Anne’s had been left out of the evidentiary documents created for these hearings by the federal government. Since then, survivors have been fighting for the inclusion of this documentation in their compensation hearings. 

Though the process was designed to mitigate harm, survivors of St. Anne’s say the extended litigation has re-traumatized them and delayed justice. 

TVO.org has created a timeline of the St. Anne’s case stretching back to 1992. 

August 1992: Sixteen years after St. Anne’s residential school closes, Chief Edmund Metatawabin, of Fort Albany, hosts a community-healing conference to address the collective abuses experienced at the school. Around 400 people attend. After discussions between the community and survivors, they decide to share their findings with the OPP. 

1992 to 1997: The OPP conducts an investigation into abuse allegations at St. Anne’s that IAP: The Individual Assessment Process is an out-of-court adjudication process included within the IRSSA for survivors who were abused during their time at residential school. It was designed to be similar to civil-court proceedings, but it eases various procedural requirements and places responsibility on the adjudicator, rather than on the parties, to question all witnesses (other than experts retained by the adjudicator) and prepare a decision.   IRS: Indian residential school.   IRSSA: The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement is a settlement between former students of the residential schools, the Assembly of First Nations, the federal government, and church organizations that developed a process for establishing compensation for residential-school survivors and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.   IRS school narrative/narrative report: A report created by the federal government that provides an overview of a residential school: how long it ran, who ran it, what abuses allegedly occurred at the school. Such a report can be — along with other documents — used by adjudicators as evidence when assessing an IAP claim.   Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin (St. Anne’s Residential School Survivors) Association: Founded in 1997, PKKA represents survivors of St. Anne’s IRS. According to the association, Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin is a Cree phrase that means “Fort Albany back to healing.”   POI report: A person-of-interest report is a document, created by the federal government, that provides details about residential-school staff members who might have abused children. An adjudicator can refer to a POI report — which could include allegations and criminal records — when assessing an IAP claim.   RFD: A request for direction is a dispute-resolution mechanism for the IAP process that allows a party to bring a disagreement about the process to court so that a supervising judge can make a ruling on it in the context of IRSSA.generates more than 12,300 pages of documents and includes statements from over 700 people. In 1997, the OPP lays charges against seven former St. Anne’s employees: Marcel Blais, Claude Chénier, J.C., Jane Kakeychewan, Claude Lambert, Anna Wesley, and John Rodrigue. All but J.C. were later convicted of some criminal charges.

1997: Survivors found the Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin (St. Anne's residential school survivors) Association.

May 8, 2006: The Assembly of First Nations, the federal government, various church organizations, and claimants agree to the terms of the IRSSA, which creates the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and establishes processes for compensation to survivors. “The Parties further desire the promotion of healing, education, truth and reconciliation and commemoration,” the agreement says. 

September 19, 2007: IRSSA implementation begins. Included are the Common Experience Payment process, which awards money based on time spent at residential schools, and the Independent Assessment Process, which reviews individual claims of abuse and harm suffered in order to award compensation. 

January to May 2012: Lawyer Fay Brunning visits clients of hers,  St. Anne’s survivors, in Fort Albany. During her stay, she reads old news articles about the OPP investigation and the criminal trial of St. Anne’s administrators and realizes that the OPP investigation’s findings had been left out of the evidentiary documents created for these hearings by the federal government.  

June 25, 2013: Canada’s counsel acknowledges it came into possession of OPP records of abuse at St. Anne’s in 2003 but says that court transcripts of these hearings “are not probative of issues in this process.” 

December 17, 2013: Court hearing for the Requests for Direction brought forward by survivors, the TRC, and the federal government regarding the disclosure of OPP documents begins. Canada’s position was that it did not have to include details of people after they’d left the school and that it was not obligated to acquire documents from third parties.

January 14, 2014: Justice Paul Perell of the Ontario Superior Court makes his ruling and orders Canada to “produce the OPP documents in its possession to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in accordance with the provisions of the IRSSA.” He also orders that the OPP documents and transcripts of trials be produced to the claimants and that the narrative and person-of-interest reports for St. Anne’s be revised by August 2014. He writes: “The factual record for this RFD shows that based on its unduly narrow interpretation of its obligations, Canada has not adequately complied with its disclosure obligations with respect to the St. Anne’s Narrative and with respect to the POI Reports for St. Anne’s.” 

June 30, 2014: OPP documents are released to Brunning and to counsel for survivors. However, in court records, Perell notes that “the documents contained redactions” (Canada was prepared to provide unredacted documents only in the case of publicly available criminal trials). According to Perell, Brunning says of the revised narratives and POI that Canada “did not organize or summarize the documents in a manner that was helpful to IAP Claimants, their counsel, or adjudicators. She asserted that it was difficult, if not impossible, for adjudicators and Claimants to use the new information in any meaningful way.” 

It’s so important for me to have their cases open again. My oldest brother’s wife is still alive today. She’s going to be 90 years old in July, and my brother’s kids are still alive. Same thing with my brother-in-law — even though he’s gone and my sister’s gone, his children are still alive. And I’m pretty sure they want to find out what happened to him. For me, I want to see justice no matter what, even if they’re gone, so they can be at peace.  — Angela Shisheesh, a St. Anne’s survivor

June 23, 2015: Following an RFD submitted by survivors, Perell rules that Canada must revise the narrative and POI reports for St. Anne’s to include details of abuse at the school and to provide the secretariat for IRSSA with unredacted copies of court documents.

2015 to 2019: Various survivors whose claims were processed before the OPP investigation was disclosed and before the narrative and POI reports were updated attempt to re-visit their IAP claims. According to a 2020 affidavit from Metatawabin, requests from numerous survivors to receive fresh evidence and the updated reports were denied. 

July 6, 2018: An update is produced on the IAP’s “sunset order,” a document that lays out how the IAP process will conclude. Included in the process is the destruction of IAP documents and the database of IAP decisions, for reasons of privacy and confidentiality.

a group of children with a priest
 St. Anne’s took children from Fort Albany First Nation and other nearby Cree communities. (Courtesy of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre)

April 12, 2019: The Supreme Court of Canada makes a ruling about an IAP claim in Manitoba that says supervising judges “can intervene if there has been a failure to apply and implement the terms of the Agreement” and that “courts have a duty to ensure that the claimants receive the benefits they bargained for. 

May 12, 2020: Metatawabin files an RFD requesting that the 2014 and 2015 decisions about the OPP investigation and updated narrative and POI reports be enforced for the 166 IAP claimants whose hearings were held before the new evidence had been disclosed. He cites the 2019 Supreme Court decision in this RFD. He also asks to delay the destruction of IAP documents until all legal proceedings concerning the fresh evidence have been resolved. 

Personally, it’s a shame that they had to spend, I think, over $3.2 million now [litigating the case]. I don’t know why they’re playing this game. These crimes were committed against children. That’s as low as you can get, as far as I’m concerned. I’m happy that, finally, hopefully, they release the documents. I think people need to hear this crap, what we had to go through. Because it’s not fair. They are violating our human rights.  — Evelyn Korkmaz, St. Anne’s survivor

May 29, 2020: The sunset order is approved by British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Brenda Brown, who oversaw the IAP process in Western Canada. The order directs Canada “to destroy the IAP Documents in its possession by March 31, 2021,” according to Brown. 

June 5, 2020: Perell recuses himself from the St. Anne’s litigation following a conflict with Brunning. Due to the recusal, Metatawabin’s May 2020 RFD is sent to Brown, for the sake of “judicial economy and efficiency.” Survivors appeal the decision to move the case to B.C. 

November 2 to 5, 2020: St. Anne’s survivors successfully appeal the decision for Metatawabin’s 2020 RFD to be heard in B.C. on November 2. The case returns to the Ontario Superior Court and is assigned to Justice Benjamin Glustein on November 5. 

left: a group of people behind a podium; right: a brown-haired woman
St. Anne’s survivors Angela Shisheesh (left, behind podium) and Evelyn Korkmaz (Courtesy of Susan G. Enberg Productions).

November 20, 2020: The CBC reports that, between January 1, 2013, and October 1, 2020, the federal government has spent $3.2 million in its litigation against St. Anne’s survivors. 

February 3, 2021: Brown rules to suspend Canada from destroying IAP documents — including the narrative and POI reports and the IAP-decision database — pertaining to St. Anne’s. 

March 18, 2021: Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announces that counsel has requested a third-party independent review of the St. Anne’s litigation. Survivors are initially optimistic about the request, but “on further evaluation,” a statement from the PKKA says, “we found that it focused only on a handful of St. Anne’s survivors.” PKKA also notes that the matter is already being reviewed by Glustein. 

egardless of the court’s determination, our actions today are intended to demonstrate concrete steps to begin to rebuild the relationship between Canada and survivors of St. Anne’s. — Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, March 18, 2021

April 20, 2021: Perell rules on the government’s request for an independent review. He says the government’s proposal “contains unnecessary restrictions and conditions on the [independent special advisor’s] review.” Perell orders the review and says the advisor “has the discretion to make such recommendations on any St. Anne’s Claim with reasoning.” He also limits Canada’s involvement in the review — it is only to provide documents to the reviewer — and appoints an amicus to speak on behalf of the claimants.

June 3, 2021: In light of the discovery of the remains of 215 children at Kamloops residential school, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh orders a motion calling for the government to end its litigation with survivors, including those of St. Anne’s. “What has become very clear is that symbolic gestures are not good enough,” Singh says. “We need concrete action.” 

(left) a man stands in a field; right, a group of people standing on stairs
Edmund Metatawabin, former chief of Fort Albany First Nation (left); St. Anne's survivors pictured in Toronto in 2016. (Courtesy of Susan G. Enberg Productions)

June 7, 2021: The vote on Singh’s motion is carried unanimously, 271 to zero. Liberal cabinet ministers — including Justice Minister David Lametti, Indigenous Services Canada Minister Marc Miller, and Bennett — and Trudeau abstain. The legally non-binding vote asks the government to create a progress report in 10 days and to sit down with the PKKA to find a resolution for the litigation. 

June 17, 2021: As of publication time, 5:40 p.m., the federal government has not produced the progress report requested in the NDP motion. The litigation continues in the Ontario Superior Court under the supervision of Glustein. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Claude Chénier's surname. TVO.org regrets the error.

For more on this subject, read "‘Felt throughout generations’: A timeline of residential schools in Canada," by Jeyan Jeganathan and Carla Lucchetta. 

Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional-support and crisis-referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

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