by John Copley
(ANNews) – On February 19, 2008, a class action lawsuit was issued by Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench. Referred to as T.L., R.M., and J.S. vs Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Alberta as Represented by the Director of Child Welfare and the Public Trustee, Action No.: 0403-12989, the suit represents all persons who suffered injuries before or during a time when they were subject to a permanent wardship order or permanent guardianship order by Alberta Child Welfare between July 1, 1966 and February 19, 2008, or a temporary guardianship order by Alberta Child Welfare between July 1, 1985 and February 19, 2008.
As the deadline to apply quickly approaches (January 15, 2017) it is imperative that anyone who suffered at the hands of the government or the caregivers provided by same, contact one of the phone numbers at the end of this article or you will not be able to file for or claim any compensation which may be owed to you.
It is important to note that this lawsuit has created a great deal of controversy across the province in recent years and for various reasons. First, the lawyer who originally petitioned the court for a class action suit on behalf of his clients was removed from the case because the judge hearing arguments on the resolution of the many cases determined that he was over-zealous and instead handed that responsibility to a law firm that operates out of Ontario.
Edmonton lawyer Robert Lee and many of his clients say they have been treated with disrespect by the Judge Denny Thomas, the same judge that apparently didn’t know the law when he recently sentenced accused murderer Travis Vader while using a section of the Criminal Code that the Supreme Court of Canada declared unconstitutional in 1990.
During the past week, several people have brought it to my attention that Judge Thomas, has, among other things, started court proceedings early (1:30 p.m. instead of 2 p.m.) a move that didn’t allow everyone involved in the case to be present, and also hurried through the cases and reached his conclusions in a short afternoon session despite the fact that his actions were protested by victims who’ve been waiting for years for a just solution.
“On November 13, 2015,” noted Velvet Martin, a woman who claims that her child was so badly mistreated while in government care that she eventually died because of malnutrition and other causes, “I attended court to object to conditions of the Settlement Agreement. I was waiting outside the courtroom at 1:45 pm when a person told me that the court had already started. The notice I received from the law firm handling the case, London, Ontario-based McKenzie Lake, said that the hearing was to begin at 2 p.m. Because I got into the courtroom late, I missed what happened at the beginning. I believe it was wrong for the hearing to get underway before Class-Action Members could show up and voice complaint.”
Martin also noted that “Judge Thomas also made negative and disparaging comments about Robert Lee, who he said did not have standing anyway. Mr. Lee was my lawyer and also the lawyer for several others, others who did not and do not want to be represented by MacKenzie Lake. During the hearing a Class-Action Member came forward to object and appeared very timid and out of her comfort zone. I felt very badly for her; it was my impression that Justice Thomas was dismissive. I also came forward to voice opposition to the settlement and felt that Justice Thomas did not take time to consider my concerns either.
“I felt that this was not a real hearing; rather like we were just going through motions – it was like a side-show. Justice Thomas approved the settlement and said he’d give a written explanation later. He made his decision on the spot although the Class Member only just filed papers objecting to the Settlement that day. It was a farce; we have waited for years to settle these matters and they rushed them away in an afternoon court session.”
Martin said she’s confused and no longer knows where she stands or even if her case will be one of those on the docket.
“After the hearing, I attempted to ask McKenzie-Lake how to apply and one of their lawyers, Sabrina Lombardi, abruptly told me that I’m not a Class Member, but she wouldn’t tell me why the change of heart. I’ve written to the firm and the Law Society of Upper Canada several times trying to achieve clarification but without response. I’m very upset and literally in a state of limbo. With the impending Settlement reaching a close, generations of victims, I fear, who have put years of efforts and faith into resolution, will be failed. I have spoken with other victims who tell me that they’ve expressed confusion and concern when it comes to McKenzie-Lake lawyers, who were informed – similar to me – ‘it is only you who feels this way.’ All one needs to do is examine Facebook posts by Class Members to see that there is tremendous mistrust and confusion over the handling of this suit. It seems no one is able to get straight answers. I have many pieces of information that I am willing to share about the victims and the mistreatment they have received.
“(Lawyer) Sabrina Lombardi mentioned that litigants are expected to do their own work; that the firm isn’t responsible for assistance. Members are upset that Justice Thomas allowed litigators who they dismissed continue to represent their interests. Other questions I have include:
“Why are funds intended for victims reverting to the Government? This was disclosed to me during an interview with Sabrina Lombardi. Are victims aware? Why do victims require the services of McKenzie-Lake or need to pay a portion of their compensation to the firm if they are able to file a VOC on their own? I’ve written to the Law Society of Upper Canada repeatedly but get no reply! Is this unusual? It’s as if this case is a conspiracy to ensure victims fail to achieve compensation for the harm done to them.”
Next month Alberta Native News will pursue this matter further so that Albertans and all Canadians will have a better idea about the shambles that court hearings dealing with the mistreatment of children and other individuals are in. If you have experienced any attempt to thwart your claims or deny your injuries or compensation, please contact the newspaper.
In the meantime, lawyer Robert Lee’s dedication to duty was recently honoured by the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Rights, who called him “a rare lawyer who takes on cases no one else will touch including sexual and physical abuse of children in the care system. He is an example of everything that is ethical, just, and fair; he seeks accountability through the law and the judicial process.”
Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW) President, Muriel Stanley -Venne called him “the most courageous lawyer in Alberta.”
During his acceptance speech Lee talked about his experiences in dealing with the class action suit mentioned in this article.
“When I first started this work in about 2001,” he said, “I was representing multiple children who had been abused in government care. A non-profit organization had contacted me to find out about a class action lawsuit and the rights of children and what they needed to know for the children and for their own organization. The government found out, Alberta Child Welfare, that I had been invited to speak to this organization and they blackballed me, they threatened the organization that if I was allowed to speak to their membership that the government would cancel the funding to the non-profit organization and that would put them out of business because 80 percent of their funding came from government.
“I think that it’s wrong for the Government of Alberta to use its position of authority to obstruct the legal rights of children and to threaten and intimidate organizations and lawyers who simply want to help vulnerable children.
“The second thing I want to talk about, is that the first class action that I started for children was about the government’s failure to protect their legal rights. An Ontario law firm took over that law suit a couple of years ago, and some of the class members have recently asked me to investigate the settlement, which was entered to in early 2016 and the deadline is actually approaching on January 15, 2017.
“Upon investigating the case I have come across some things that have disturbed me quite a bit. One of the things that I discovered is that the Ontario law firm who is representing the vulnerable claims list, the children that had their rights violated, had actually sent the plaintiff, the representative plaintiff, to meet with a lawyer that worked for the government law firm. This is a really gross conflict of interest in my opinion and I am looking into why this was done.
“Another thing that I discovered is that in the class action settlement, it appears that only 10 percent of the class members are going to receive a benefit from the settlement and 90 percent of the class members actually receive no benefit at all.
“The net result of this is that the class action settlement actually results in the class members, as a whole, receiving less compensation than they would have received if there was no law suit and no settlement at all. I am investigating this because it seems that the only people that have benefited from the settlement appeared to be the lawyers and the government.
“The third thing I’d like to talk about is that I have started a second class action against the government and again this one is for the failure of the government to protect the rights of children. What they did in this case, they have kept children in care, and without a valid court order – I consider that kidnapping. There was a recent hearing in that case and the judge in the case compared the government’s actions in the law suit to that of a John Grisham movie and book by the name of ‘Rainmaker’ and he described the actions of the government as a ‘shell game.’ I am waiting for a decision from the judge on that; we expect it shortly.
“These are the types of things that vulnerable children, kids in the care of government have faced in trying to obtain the protection of their human rights and access to justice. I can’t leave here without thanking some very important people, Cynthia Orwaard, was my legal assistant for 10 years before she retired and I have to thank her. In addition, I have my own role models – Velvet Martin, who has worked for the rights of innocent children herself for many years after being involved in the child welfare system. Muriel Stanley Venne was also a great role model for me; she was awarded the Order of Canada and mentioned by the United Nations. Most importantly I would like to thank my wife, Lisa and my two sons, who have to live with the stress of the difficult work that I do.”