A Burlington law firm has launched a $1-billion class action lawsuit against Grenville Christian College, claiming it subjected former students to abuse ranging from beatings with a wooden paddle to group humiliation.
It’s one of the largest class actions ever launched in Canada in terms of damages sought, says lead lawyer Chris Haber of Haber & Associates.
The statement of claim filed last month with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Milton names Grenville Christian College, former headmasters Rev. Alastair Haig and Rev. Charles Farnsworth as defendants, as well as the Anglican Church of Canada and the Massachusetts-based religious group, the Community of Jesus.
The lawsuit identifies three former students who attended the now-closed private school near Brockville. Haber says the class could potentially expand to between 3,500 and 5,000 others, but adds it’s difficult to predict at this early stage.
The class action has not been certified and none of the allegations have been proven in court.
This class action follows in the footsteps of Cloud v. Canada, which involved allegations of abuse at an aboriginal residential school in Brantford, says seasoned class action lawyer Harvey Strosberg of Sutts Strosberg LLP in Windsor.
In 2004, the Court of Appeal certified as a class the former students of that residential school. It was the first time residential school survivors were allowed to advance a claim collectively in Ontario. Then in December 2006, a court approved the largest class action settlement in Canadian history - expected to cost the federal government up to $5 billion - on behalf of thousands of former students of aboriginal residential schools across the country, including those in Cloud.
In the Grenville case, the statement of claim alleges the named defendants were negligent and breached their fiduciary, statutory, and/or common law duties to the students.
The claim alleges that teachers and other staff arbitrarily selected students needing “spiritual healing or discipline,” and punished them through a variety of methods including forced prayer, ostracism, and “light sessions.”
Staff would wake students from their dorm room beds in the night, bring them to a darkened room, shine a bright light on their faces, and then berate and humiliate them until they renounced their alleged sins, says the statement of claim.
Some students were also denounced and humiliated before small groups of staff, and in some cases students were subjected to the same treatment in front of the entire student body, it is alleged.
Teachers and other staff “would also encourage other students to join in the denunciation of the alleged sinners,” says the statement of claim.
Staff also questioned female students about their chastity, and denounced those accused of inappropriate behaviour as “whores” and “sluts,” says the claim. And, in a number of instances, students of both genders were physically beaten with a wooden paddle, it says.
Some former students now suffer from anxiety and depression, have difficulty forming and sustaining intimate relationships, and their ability to participate in normal family life is impaired, says the claim.
The Anglican Church of Canada and the Community of Jesus financed, operated, managed, supervised, or controlled the college during the relevant time period, according to the statement of claim.
Both organizations approved or authorized incompetent and immoral persons to serve as directors, teachers, and non-teaching staff, says the claim, and they permitted the abuse, either expressly or tacitly, and failed to respond to reports of abuse or to notify the proper authorities.
The lawsuit accuses Haig and Farnsworth of sanctioning the physical beatings of students, and participating in the verbal abuse and humiliation.
The claim also accuses Farnsworth of actively participating in the physical beatings, and verbally attacking and humiliating female students with sexual insults that were “coarse, obscene, lewd, and degrading.”
“People contact us every day, wanting to tell their stories,” says Haber.
The litigants are asking for $500 million in non-pecuniary general damages, $250 million in pecuniary general and special damages, and $250 million in aggravated, exemplary, and punitive damages.
The named plaintiffs Tim Blacklock and Mark Vincent attended the college for two years in the 1970s, and plaintiff Martin Whyte was a student from 1989 to 1983.