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Sisters sue Catholic order (Metis sisters sue for treatment at convent in 1959).

Windspeaker Staff Writer


A Metis Canadian senator and the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada have promised their support to three Metis sisters who are suing the Alberta government and three Catholic nuns for compensation as a result of their experiences at an Edmonton convent in 1959.

Maryann Stepien, Shirley Armstrong and Treasa Goulet were seized by provincial child welfare workers and placed in the south Edmonton O'Connell Institute, which was operated by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, in February 1959 and remained there until September 1960.

In their statement of claim filed in Edmonton's Court of Queen's Bench in May 1997, the sisters claim they were unnecessarily taken from their homes and subjected to "public and private degradation and humiliation, forced starvation, beatings and strappings, forced solitary confinement for lengthy periods and physical assaults."

They are each demanding $50,000 in general damages, $50,000 in special damages and $250,000 in punitive damages.

In the year since the lawsuit was filed, the sisters have seen the provincial government take steps to limit its liability for compensation to the victims of forced sterilization in the early part of this century. The sisters see the government's attempts to settle that matter out of court as a serious public accountability problem and they worry it could happen to them.

But Edmonton lawyer James Joosse, who is acting for the three sisters and one other plaintiff in this matter, said the government has not yet made any move that makes him worry that it will try to limit its liability. He points out that there were more than 700 people seeking damages as a result of Alberta's eugenics laws, while there are only about a dozen people suing the government and the church.

Lawyers for the church are arguing that the two-year statute of limitations on claims related to an alleged assault which leads to an injury ran out a long time ago. A hearing on the statute of limitations argument, originally scheduled for April 14, was put off at the request of the church's lawyers until June 4. The government has not indicated what position it will take on that issue.

Joosse said he believes the Alberta Limitations of Actions Act allows for exemptions to the time limitations if the alleged victim has been incapacitated. He believes he can persuade a court to grant that exemption so the case can continue to trial.

"We want to be heard," said Armstrong. "We don't want this happening again."

The sisters say they were removed from their home improperly. They say they can prove they should never have been removed from their home, that the government made a mistake and it should compensate them for it. They add that as many as 100 other former O'Connell Institute residents could come forward looking for their compensation as well.

It's an issue with special interest for Aboriginal people because so many of the people who were placed in the institutions were Aboriginal. Joosse said he doesn't have to prove racism to make his case, but it may be an aspect of the case that will arise later.

"It's hard to look past the fact that so many of these kids were Native," he said. "If you're the least bit cynical, it's hard not to believe that racism was involved, but it's hard to prove on a case-by-case basis. The other party simply denies it and then the onus of proof is on you."

A Vancouver law firm is representing several other plaintiffs in this case and the actions may be joined together. The number of similar claims being brought together may help all the cases.

Senator Thelma Chalifoux, a Metis woman recently appointed to the Canadian Senate, and Marilyn Buffalo, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, have been contacted by the sisters and have agreed to help them deal with the political pressures of taking on two such powerful entities.
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Author:Barnsley, Paul
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:May 1, 1998
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