APTN National News
OTTAWA–Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan avoided questions Tuesday on an issue that threatens to derail the multi-billion dollar residential school settlement agreement over corruption allegations against lawyers handling thousands of claims.
Already one Winnipeg lawyer has been disbarred for pocketing $1 million from over 50 residential school survivors and a Calgary law firm handling nearly 4,000 claims is facing serious allegations it wrongfully took money from residential school student clients.
Following up on a year-long investigation by APTN Investigates, APTN National News has also learned that concerns have now spread to British Columbia and Ontario, threatening to derail the $5 billion residential school settlement, the largest settlement in Canadian history.
Duncan, however, refused to answer questions from the NDP on the issue during Question Period.
“This issue is before the courts,” said Duncan, on Tuesday. “This is a multi-party activity that will have to occur and we’ll have to wait for the courts.”
NDP Aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder, however, charged that the government was doing little to help residential school survivors who may have been victimized by the very system created to compensate them for the abuse they faced in residential schools.
“We are coming up to the anniversary of the apology and residential school survivors need more action from this government,” said Crowder. “The situation is deteriorating.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to residential school students in 2008 for the abuse they suffered at the schools which were funded by the government and run by churches.
As a result of the apology, the Blood Tribe in Alberta gave Harper the honourary title of “Chief Speaker” for issuing the apology.
Since then, the Blood Tribe has become ground-zero for complaints over the handling of residential school files by Calgary law firm Blott and Company under the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) that determines payouts for former students based on the level of abuse they faced.
The now deceased aunt of Blood Tribe Chief Charlie Weasel Head is one of the residential school survivors who claimed to have been mistreated by the law firm and its president David Blott.
During six days of hearings into the allegations held in Vancouver before the British Columbia Supreme Court, Blott’s firm was accused of advancing high interest loans to claimants and charging service fees, which allegedly violates IAP rules.
Blott’s lawyers argued that residential school survivors chose to take the loans against their potential claims and that the investigation launched against the firm was biased and unfair.
Blott’s firm was also accused of stockpiling clients it couldn’t properly represent. Investigators allege the firm is currently sitting on 1,159 files it hasn’t touched even as the September deadline to get claims in looms on the horizon.
A ruling is expected at any time.
Winnipeg lawyer Howard Tennenhouse was disbarred by the Manitoba Law Society earlier this year after pleading guilty to taking nearly $1 million from 54 residential school survivors.
Allegations against other law firms in British Columbia and Ontario have also since emerged.
The Assembly of First Nations has asked the court to appoint an “eminent” residential school survivor to try and salvage the settlement as many residential school survivors are losing their faith in the legal system, a development that could undermine the whole process and even force a reopening of the claim