Haida residential school survivor pursues class-action against Catholic Church over priest’s comments

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A Haida elder and residential school survivor is leading a proposed class action lawsuit against the Catholic Church and one of its priests over what she alleges are “false and deeply hurtful” denialist comments.

Sphenia Jones is scheduled to appear in a Calgary courtroom on Monday after filing a statement of claim against Edmonton priest Marcin Mironiuk, the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, and the Oblate Fathers of Assumption Province.

Jones is alleging that remarks Mironiuk made during a mass service in 2021 — in which he reportedly described the evidence of potential unmarked graves at residential schools as “lies” and “manipulation” — are defamatory against herself and other survivors who have spoken out about deaths at the institutions. 

She is proposing a class-action lawsuit, but the defendants from the church are asking that application to be struck down. The court is now set to decide whether it will move forward.

Mironiuk, speaking in Polish, reportedly said during the service that “we are in the presence of lies here in Canada,” according to a translation from CBC, and that Indigenous children “were dying from natural causes and were buried in regular cemeteries, and that’s why we’re living now in a great lie.”

Mironiuk also told the congregation he visited the former Kamloops Indian Residential School without disclosing he was a priest and asked to see “mass graves,” according to the same translation.

The archdiocese apologized for Mironiuk’s remarks, calling the comments “thoroughly unacceptable” and placing the priest on indefinite administrative leave. But Jones said words can’t describe the hurt she felt.

“When he said that,” Jones said, “that hit me; in the gut, in my heart, so badly. It was like he was directly talking to me.”

Jones is from the Haida Nation and survived the former Edmonton Residential School.

a brick building on green grass
An outbuilding is all that’s left of the former Edmonton Indian Residential School in St. Albert, which operated from 1924 to 1968. (Janet French/CBC)

If the lawsuit moves ahead, she plans to take a boat and train-ride journey similar to the one she was forced to take more than 60 years ago on her way to residential school. 

“When I was in the residential school, when they used to punish us, they always used to say, ‘Nobody is going to believe you,'” said Jones. “I used to say, ‘I’m going to tell.'”

‘I want it to go around the world’

A special chambers brief for the case said Jones “brings this claim in defamation, on behalf of herself and the proposed class of residential school survivors who like her have spoken out about deaths at residential schools.”

The brief details allegations that Mironiuk’s “false and deeply hurtful assertions” have “viciously maligned” these survivors. 

“To Ms. Jones and too many of her fellow residential school survivors, these vicious and defamatory statements, left unchecked, risk cruel fulfilment of what they were told as children, and that for too long held true: you will not be believed,” the document states, in part.

“Justice demands that the claim be allowed to proceed to ensure that residential school deniers such as Rev. Mironiuk be held fully accountable for the additional and ongoing harms they inflict, and to vindicate the reality of residential schools that has long been carried on the shoulders of the survivors.”

A hand painted stone that says "Every Child Matters" is seen amongst grass in the foreground, in front of a large red brick building.
A hand-painted stone at a memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C., pictured in June 2023. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

In their application to strike the claim, the defendants said the statements did not refer to Jones and the proposed class of people is “not ascertainable or identifiable.”

A statement from the Oblate Fathers of Assumption Province issued on Wednesday said “while acknowledging he made statements about the site in Kamloops, Fr. Mironiuk has expressed publicly that he did not put into question the existence of any graves,” and added that he didn’t mean to cause harm to survivors.

“[Mironiuk] has acknowledged that the school has a hurtful reality for some of its attendees and laments any loss of life which occurred,” the statement added.

“Fr. Mironiuk personally pledged further to advance truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians and had educated himself about this issue even further.”

The Oblate Fathers of Assumption Province’s statement said it wants to strike down Jones’s lawsuit “on the basis that it fails to disclose a cause of action.”

The Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton declined to comment since the case is before the court system.

According to Jones, the Catholic Church had requested to settle her claim — which she opened last year — out of court, but she refused.

“I want it to go around the world. I want [survivors] to talk about what happened to them,” she said. “If I settle out of court, it would be just like me asking for the money, and that’s it.

“I don’t want no damn money.”

‘It’s all going to be healed’

Jones was 11 years old when she was taken from her home on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off British Columbia’s North Coast, and transported by boat and then train to the Edmonton Residential School. 

Opened in 1924, the institution was operated by the United Church of Canada in 1925 until the school’s closure in 1966.

Court documents say Jones “was rounded up along with dozens of other children from Haida Gwaii by federal officials, who threatened their parents with jail if they did not give up their children.”

“The children were put on a train, which stopped multiple times to pick up other children from communities along the route. Several children did not survive the journey to Edmonton.”

Jones said she recalls being placed in a boxcar to look after Indigenous babies, who were all “crying really hard.” While at the school, Jones says she remembers witnessing the deaths or disappearances of other children, something that continues to haunt her. 

“She saw where they were buried, along the fence — an area now overgrown with trees. One of her fellow students, Eddie Hans, was made to bury many of the children,” the court briefing document alleges.

Jones said she was given the task of looking after babies who were tied up in iron cribs, who she remembers were “all of the sudden” gone one day.

“Years later, I found out that my cousins buried so many babies in Edmonton,” said Jones, now 80.

According to the court documents, she had a classmate named Vicki Stewart who allegedly “died after being hit in the head with a wood implement by one of the nuns.” 

“On reporting the incident, Ms. Jones was punished, told to keep quiet, and told nobody would believe her,” the document alleges. “… Ms. Jones had to prepare her body by wrapping her in a blanket.”

Jones says she and a friend were also punished for sharing their cultures. She said she had three fingernails yanked off, after her hands became swollen from chemicals that she was forced to use to scrub cement floors with a toothbrush. She recalls other children having teeth pulled without anesthesia. 

“I still hear the babies screaming in my head. To this day. I can’t get that screaming out of my head,” she said.

“I feel like this journey that I’m going on … I’m going to feel a lot better after this. My healing journey will be ended by then.”

Jones said planning to recreate the journey she took as a child — this time to try to find justice — will help her as she hopes she can “talk directly to this preacher and the church.”

“By the time I’m done with this, I’m not going to be in the pain that I was in the beginning. It’s all going to be healed. And the only reason I can say that is because there’s going to be a lot more people coming out and saying what happened to them,” she said.

“They’re not going to be afraid to speak up now.” 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

The Local Journalism Initiative supports the creation of original civic journalism that is relevant to the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada, broadening availability and consumption of local and regional news on matters of civic governance. Read more about The Local Journalism Initiative here.  Any questions about LJI content should be directed to: lji@cbc.ca.


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