Church and Government on trial
by David Wiwchar
The case was launched by 26 First Nations men who suffered sexual, emotional and physical abuse while attending the United Church-operated school in Port Alberni, B.C.
Hundreds of First Nations children attended the school from the mid-1860s to 1973, when it was ordered destroyed by the West Coast and District Council of Indian Chiefs. Many of those children were abused in a variety of ways while living at the school.
The lawsuit was launched against the Federal Department of Indian Affairs and the United Church of Canada after the conviction of former residential school teacher Arthur Henry Plint. Plint, now in his 80s, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for assaulting more that 30 First Nations boys, aged six to 13, between 1948 and 1968.
The civil trial began Feb. 2 with Willie Blackwater, now 43, recounting the horrors of the weekly beatings and sexual abuse inflicted on him by Plint.
Blackwater began his testimony by introducing himself to the court as Number 411.
"I don't have a Native name" said Blackwater. "I was deprived of that privilege."
Blackwater described how he was taken into Plint's office in the middle of the night, sometimes on the pretext of a phone call from his father, and brutally raped and beaten.
From the age of 10 to 13, Blackwater was assaulted at least once a week. He tried to tell people about the rapes, but each time his accusations would result in his being strapped by Principal John Andrews and, later, a beating by Plint.
"Mr. Andrews called me a dirty lying Indian, and said I just wanted to cause trouble, and then he strapped me," the soft-spoken Blackwater who wiped tears away as he described the horrific beatings from Plint in the dormitory after being strapped in the principal's office.
After Blackwater was knocked unconscious and put in the infirmary following his third attempt at warning other students about Plint, he feared for his life and decided to remain silent as other students had vowed to do.
Throughout the first two weeks of the trial, numerous plaintiffs took the stand, describing the atrocities they experienced and witnessed while attending the Port Alberni Residential School.
This case is not necessarily about the physical and mental pain, torture and humiliation suffered at the hands of residential school teachers, but about the liability of the Canadian Indian Affairs Department and the United Church of Canada.
The issue facing the court is not whether the allegations of abuse are true, because that has already been established by the case that sent Arthur Plint to prison. The issue is whether the Canadian government and the United Church are liable for the abuses suffered by the children in their care.
The plaintiffs say they want to see the church and government held accountable for these abuses.
"I was raped and beaten by a man for years," said Blackwater. "Is there any kind of compensation that can be made for that?"
Blackwater's lawyer, Peter Grant estimates that compensation for his clients could be between $100,000 and $600,000 per person, and that there are several hundred Aboriginal people across Canada who were victimized while attending residential schools.
Even though that say no amount of money will be sufficient to correct the damage done by the residential schools, they want to see a cash settlement that will permit more counseling for alcohol and drug abuse, violence and illiteracy problems in Native communities; problems that can all be traced back to the residential schools experience.
"This is not a question of regret and apology" said Grant. "This is a question of legal responsibility neither the church nor the government have yet accepted."
Several similar cases are pending against the Canadian government and the various churches contracted to run residential schools,
The court will hear from more than 30 plaintiffs, as well as former Port Alberni Residential School teachers and principals, over the 15-day Supreme Court trial period before Justice Donald Brenner makes his decision.
Windspeaker March 1998 Vol.15#11 Canada's National News Service
Our traditional teachings can help! They lead to sanity, sobriety, spirituality. Four days out of the year is not enough time. We must fight for spiritual healing sites and funds to operate them. That is the only hope for our salvation! This U.S. Government and churches owe us at least that much! And all without their controlling influence. Baraka Si the god of all their programs is unwanted.