Debbie Paul sits at the kitchen table in her home in Sipekne’katik First Nation, Nova Scotia, combing through her Sixties Scoop file – a collection of legal documents, letters and faded photos of herself as a child at the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School.
The file contains a written record of Paul’s trip. She’s been seeking justice for years, and a letter she received last week makes her feel like she’s no closer to a resolution after all her hard work.
“Now it looks like my validation, they’ve taken it away from me,” Paul said.
The letter is a final rejection of the Sixties Scoop class action settlement agreement, intended to provide personal settlements to ‘Status Indian’ and Inuit children, who were abducted or ‘torn’ from their parents and communities between 1951 and 1991. They were placed in the care of non-Indigenous families, became Crown wards, or were placed in permanent care facilities.
Paul points to the words “official rejection” and “no action possible”. These words stand out at the top of a one-page letter.
“The door was slammed on me,” she said. “I have no recourse. This is Canada. We are supposed to be a free country. I should be able to appeal this decision.”
In 2018, Paul applied to the Sixties Scoop Class Action Settlement Agreement.
According to the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada webpage, “eligible class members will receive approximately $25,000 in compensation for harms suffered as a result of their experiences in the Sixties Scoop.”
By the close of applications in December 2019, 34,770 people had applied. As of last month, 19,822 applications had been approved. 10,251 additional requests were refused without right of appeal.
In 2020, Paul’s application was denied for the first time.
She was told she had no proof that she was kidnapped by a nun when the Shubenacadie institution closed in 1967 and was brought to live with a white family in Massachusetts for a year. She says that throughout that year she was abused and forced to act as the family’s housekeeper, then sent back to Nova Scotia alone without any explanation.
After Paul traveled to the United States in November 2021, she found evidence that traced her back to Rockland, Mass. She sent all the official documents she could muster and appealed the rejection without legal aid.
Then came the March 2022 letter.
The reason for the final rejection is the inability to confirm that Paul was placed in “long-term care” with non-Indigenous guardians.
“I didn’t make these stories up,” Paul said. “That’s what really happened to me…I have it here.” I have proof.
Claims processes can be traumatic
Vanessa Nevin, director of health at the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs Secretariat, said going through claims processes like the Sixties Scoop class action settlement agreement can evoke childhood trauma and “enormous emotions and intense”.
“And when you’re denied an application or your application has been reduced … you start to feel unworthy or not believed, or that what happened to you doesn’t matter to the government,” Nevin said.
“Because they basically say because [Paul] was not compensated, that his abuses did not deserve to be compensated. Whereas I would say it’s very worthy.”
When Paul contacted a representative from Collectiva, the administrator of the settlement agreement, he was told that she had been rejected because she had been in care for less than five years.
“I was taken away, 12 years old. And it wasn’t long enough.…According to [the rejection letter], I did not suffer in the long term. Excuse me. It’s a lifetime. If it happened once, it’s a lifetime.”
The five-year eligibility requirement is listed on the administrator’s website, but was not on the application form Paul completed in 2018.
She said she wouldn’t have gone through the painful process had she known about a five-year stipulation.
“If it had been made up in advance, the eligibility, you know, it would have saved a lot of heartache,” Paul said. “When your memories come back and you look at old photos, you’re transported right away…you don’t forget.”
British Columbia claimants are more successful
Doug Lennox is one of several attorneys across the country working on the settlement. His firm, Klein Lawyers LLP, is listed as a plaintiffs attorney in the BC region.
The communications firm for the class action settlement referred CBC News to Lennox as a spokesperson.
Lennox said he had clients approved under the settlement who had been supported for less than five years.
He suggested that Paul should speak to his attorney “to review her dismissal notice and understand it and see if there are other avenues for her.”
“We are trying [very much] to encourage claimants to contact one of the law firms and seek assistance, as it is a complicated process,” Lennox said.
Paul said she had to go through the settlement application process without any guidance.
In the settlement agreement, the federal government provided $75 million in legal fees to plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Toronto law firm Koskie Minsky LLP is listed as free legal counsel for candidates in the Atlantic Provinces. But each time Paul tried to reach a lawyer at Koskie Minsky, she said she was either directed to a call center or asked to leave a message. She says she was never called back.
Lennox said he couldn’t comment on another company, but he wants as many contestants as possible to succeed, even if it’s not as part of the Sixties Scoop deal.
“Not all claims are successful, and so is any class action. In some cases, there are plaintiffs [where the] claim does not fit this class action, but it might fit another one,” he said.
“The damage was still done”
Lennox suggested that Paul send his rejection letter to his company, so she could get a better explanation.
Paul hopes this isn’t the end of his journey. She said she wanted to find new legal counsel who specializes in this subject and review her dismissal notice.
She also wants to contact and work with some of the other 10,251 people across the country whose applications have been denied.
“The [are] people still there in my situation,” she said. ” We belong. We match [somewhere] in the mix. You know, the damage was still done. We live it.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their residential school experience and for those triggered by these reports.
A National Residential School Crisis Line has been established to provide support to residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.