Powerful emotional fallout

Published May 2, 2000

Not everyone is so willing to talk. "If you come onto my reserve, I’ll get you." These are some of the last words I hear before Chief Janet Webster of the Lytton Indian Band slams down the phone, bringing our brief conversation to an abrupt end. I had called Webster because I wanted to let her know I would be visiting British Columbia and was hoping to speak with residential-school survivors, some of whom are members of her band. Webster was not happy to hear from me, because other reporters had visited the reserve and left behind a powerful emotional fallout that has, she says, resulted in suicide.

Still, I was committed to visiting Lytton because it was the site of St. George’s Indian Residential School, which figured prominently in the case of Mowatt v. Clarke, the first civil case involving the Anglican Church to come to trial. In this instance, the church and the federal government admitted fault before the civil trial began and agreed to pay a settlement fee; the purpose of the trial was to determine to what degree each defendant organization – the church and Ottawa – were liable for the abuse that Derek Clarke had heaped upon his pre-pubescent victim.

In Mowatt v. Clarke the judge found the Diocese of Cariboo, the church’s national General Synod and the federal government liable for the assaults that dormitory supervisor Clarke committed against Floyd Mowatt Sr. at St. George’s Indian Residential School between 1970 and 1973, beginning when Mowatt was nine years old. In her August 30, 1999 decision Justice Janice Dillon concluded that, "All defendants have been found liable in either assault, vicarious liability or negligence" and assigned a 60-per cent share of liability jointly to the General Synod and the Diocese of Cariboo, and 40-per cent liability to the Government of Canada. (Clarke had already pleaded guilty to sexual assault in a previous criminal trial and been sentenced to prison.)

The Mowatt decision came in the wake of a case involving the United Church of Canada and a residential school at Port Alberni, B.C., which had a similar outcome. Together, these two cases set a costly precedent for institutional defendants in residential-school cases; the bells still ring atop churches and the Peace Tower, but the financial death knell is the loudest sound being heard in many Canadian cities, including Ottawa. There are almost 6,000 individual claims against the federal government and four churches, not including the more than 1,000 claimants taking part in four class-action suits currently underway in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia. At the heart of most residential-school cases is the issue of responsibility. As Justice Dillon asked on the first of her 106-page decision: "Was anybody on watch? Who?"

As institutions, the Anglican Church and the federal government certainly weren’t watching very closely when they hired Derek Clarke and gave him the opportunity to assault many children over many years. It is hard to believe that no one was aware of what this sexual predator was doing when he lined children up before bedtime and inspected every inch of their bodies, including their penises, under the guise of making sure the boys were clean. The principal at the school, the late Tony Harding, for one, may have known what Clarke was doing. Harding was acquitted of assault charges before his death, but despite the fact he couldn’t defend himself, Justice Dillon confidently wrote that, "Harding also sexually abused students at St. George’s … [and] if Harding did not know of Clarke’s behaviour then he certainly ought to have known or he was willfully blind to it." Over the eight years during which Clarke worked at the school, his sexual misconduct occurred with "incredible frequency … twice or three times a week, once a day, often. It also occurred during the summer if the boy remained behind. It was part of life there; it was accepted because Clarke was the supervisor," said Justice Dillon.

Fred Sampson says he was preyed upon by Clarke (but has not sued) and agrees that school breaks were the worst times for assault victims. "For kids left there during the summer, it was total abandonment. The predator looked for the weakest ones," he says, referring to children who were experiencing a sense of loss and separation from their families. "He’d bribe us with candy and trips to Vancouver and Stanley Park."


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