A $1.1-billion class-action lawsuit alleges the federal government is liable for the suffering and mistreatment of Aboriginal patients admitted to 29 “Indian hospitals” between 1945 and 1981.

The lawsuit contends that patients of these segregated hospitals were routinely sexually assaulted, beaten with rods and sticks, held in isolation rooms for long periods, deprived of food and drink without medical reason, physically restrained to beds and forced to eat their own vomit.

It alleges the government was fully aware of the “widespread physical, psychological, emotional, cultural and sexual abuses” but continued to operate the hospitals and “permit the perpetration of grievous harm.”

“I think people would be shocked to know that for almost 40 years Canada was operating a segregated health-care system, designing and implementing hospitals just for Indigenous Canadians where they first treated for tuberculosis, but ultimately expanded to include all other illnesses,” said Jonathan Ptak, a partner with Koskie Minsky, a Toronto law firm handling the case.

“They were taken from their homes, often in remote locations, and treated in these substandard hospitals,” he told CTV News Channel Tuesday.

The statement of claim, filed Jan. 25, alleges patients were “forcibly confined” in “overcrowded, poorly staffed and unsanitary facilities where they suffered consistent physical and sexual abuse.”

None of the allegations have been tested in a court.

Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, said in a statement: “While the Government of Canada respects the decision of plaintiffs to pursue their claims through the courts, Canada believes that the best way to address outstanding issues and achieve reconciliation with Indigenous people is through negotiation and dialogue rather than litigation.”

The “Indian hospitals” were established to test a new vaccine for tuberculosis on Aboriginal children. The last of them closed in 1981, according to the statement of claim.

“It’s been over 35 years and the survivors have been suffering largely in silence,” Ptak said. “But with the residential schools settlement, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and with a number of scholars across the country looking into this issue, these stories have been coming to light, to the point where they can now finally come forward and bring their story publicly.”

The residential schools settlement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, has set aside $1.9 billion for former residents of the schools.

The representative plaintiff in the hospital class-action is Ann Cecile Hardy, a member of the Metis Nation who lived in the Northwest Territories before being brought to the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton in 1969 when she was 10. It was one of the largest Indian hospitals in Canada.

She alleges that in her four-month stay, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by hospital staff, and “witnessed the horrific sexual abuse of others as well,” says Ptak. Hardy was left “physically, emotionally and psychologically battered,” according to the statement of claim.

The class action is intended to covers patients, and their spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters. Ptak said he hopes to have the lawsuit certified as a class action within a year.

“Every lawsuit is in part about compensation, but this lawsuit in particular is more about shining a light on this really dark chapter in Canadian history so that Canadians are aware of this,” said Ptak.

“My question is why did it take 35 years and the commencement of a lawsuit for the government’s attention to be garnered in this way?”

The lawsuit contends the federal government is liable for damages for negligence and breach of fiduciary duty in the amount of $1 billion, punitive and exemplary damages in the amount of $100 million, plus court costs and interest.

“Canada ignored, remained willfully blind and permitted harm to Patient Class members in order to avoid scrutiny and unwanted publicity about its inappropriate, common practices and procedures concerning Indian hospitals.”

The lawsuit contends Aboriginal people, many of them young children, were forcibly removed from their homes and confined in hospitals if they had tuberculosis. They faced arrest if they tried to leave. Non-Aboriginal people were not subjected to that treatment.

The practice of bed confinement for those with TB continued in Indian hospitals long after it was abandoned in non- Aboriginal hospitals, the lawsuit claims. It says Native patients were restrained to beds or put in body casts for days, weeks, and sometimes months for no medical reason.

The facilities, found in six provinces and two territories, were often converted military barracks left over from the Second World War. The claim alleges that the facilities lacked the proper sanitary infrastructure because they were never intended as hospitals and that they were operated by poorly trained staff, including many graduates of foreign medical schools who hadn’t been properly licensed in Canada. Few staff spoke a Native language or had any understanding of the culture or beliefs of patients.

Read the statement of claim on Scribd