Lawyers filed a suit on behalf of alleged Yukon victims of the Sixties Scoop in court Oct. 20. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

Yukoners taken as part of Sixties Scoop file class action lawsuit

Suit alleges government violated the rights of hundreds of Indigenous children from 1950 to 1993

A Yukon law firm has filed a proposed class action lawsuit against the federal government and Yukon’s commissioner on behalf of Indigenous children taken as part of the Sixties Scoop.

Lawyers with Shier and Jerome served the Attorney General and Yukon’s commissioner on Oct. 20.

The lawsuit alleges government officials violated the rights of hundreds of Indigenous Yukon children who were placed in foster homes, group homes or with adoptive families from 1950 to 1993.

This was done in an effort to assimilate them into white families, the lawsuit says, “with the assumption that the languages and culture of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people were inferior to those of white, Euro-Canadian, mainstream Canadian society.”

The policies and procedures by the federal government and the commissioner during the Sixties Scoop were “intentional actions or attempts to destroy the class members national, ethnic and racial groups by forcibly transferring class members to another group (white, Euro-Canadian, mainstream Canadian society),” it says.

Some of the children suffered psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse, the lawsuit says.

They suffered from the loss of cultural identity, the loss of language and the loss of the ability to participate meaningfully in employment opportunities leading to a loss or impairment of capacity to earn income, the suit says.

Officials failed to investigate or supervise the places where the children were sent, or take the steps to make sure children were not abused, it alleges.

The lawsuit asks the government be ordered to pay damages, though it doesn’t name a specific sum.

According to some estimates, as many as 20,000 First Nation and Metis children across Canada were taken away from their families from the 1960s to the 1980s and adopted into non-Indigenous families.

Earlier this month the federal government announced it had reached an agreement in principle to spend up to $750 million to compensate those taken as part of the Sixties Scoop.

Few details have been released at this point. According to a federal press release, parties are working to finalize the agreement by the end of 2017, and will seek court approval in spring 2018.

No one from the federal Department of Justice could be reached in time for today’s deadline.

Lawyer Dan Shier said he sees the Yukon lawsuit as an “opportunity for Yukoners to have control over their own action rather than as a very small part of a very large national class action.”

Shier said he believes the Yukon lawsuit is different from the federal action because it includes the Yukon government, via the commissioner, taking children and putting them up not just for adoption, but also in foster homes and group homes.

Once the commissioner and the federal government file their defence it will be up to a Yukon Supreme Court justice to decide whether the facts in the case are enough to qualify as a class action.

Shier said his office felt it was important to name the commissioner in the lawsuit.

“Not that he had anything to do with it personally, we’re not taking (that) line. It’s just that in his role as commissioner we feel that it needs to go to the top and then trickle down.”

Typically naming the commissioner in a lawsuit is the same as naming the territorial government, he said.

“We expect there will be separate defences entered by the commissioner, to be done by Yukon’s department of legal services, and by the AG of Canada and that will be done by Department of Justice Canada.”

The office of Commissioner Doug Phillips directed all questions to the territorial Department of Justice

Justice spokesperson Dan Cable said the department had just recently seen the paperwork and he couldn’t comment in time for today’s deadline.

Shier said his office is in the process of circulating information about the proposed class action to all of the territory’s First Nation Health Departments.

The Yukon case names two Yukoners who were taken from their family in the Sixties Scoop. Charles Eshleman and Christine Mullin are both members of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation who were taken from their homes.

“These are two wonderful individuals who we’ve been working with for quite a long time. (They) will, when they are involved in the case, be able to tell … just what this has meant for them and their families and their communities,” Shier said.

He said his office is asking the judge to approve an “opt out” option, meaning people won’t have to sign up to be part of the class action.

Instead, anyone who qualifies would be part of any settlement unless they don’t want to be.

No date has been set for when a Yukon judge will decide whether to certify the case as a class action.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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