If You Want Peace, Prepare For War: The Residential Schools Trial

At the end of January 2016, four months into the Labrador Residential Schools class action trial, the federal government showed a white flag.

This is not the flag of surrender, but it is the flag of truce. We agreed to talk. The Trudeau government was elected on a promise to collaboratively resolve outstanding residential schools claims, and this late-in-the-day desire to talk is both legal and political.

Serious talks about resolution occurred in early February for the first time, 8 years into the class action, because the plaintiff team followed the maxim “If you want peace, prepare for war”.  This advice is well known in military and diplomatic circles, and to trial lawyers. Opponents who think you may have the capacity to win a war are unlikely to fight.

peace-doveIn the residential schools case, the plaintiffs and their lawyers not only prepared for war, we entered on the war – the trial – and fought it nearly to the finish. Twenty-nine class members courageously testified in open about their residential school experience and abuses suffered, and all class members owe them a debt of gratitude for their courage.

Not many law firms in Canada have the risk tolerance, expertise and capacity to fight a trial as complex and unprecedented as this one. I could not have done this claim alone. Much heavy lifting was done by firms from Toronto and Edmonton. The litigation team from Toronto was led by Kirk Baert and Celeste Poltak. The team from Edmonton was led by Steve Cooper. We prosecuted the case as a consortium of three law firms working toward the same goal: winning the fight in court, or better still, winning the peace. 

Winning the peace means obtaining a resolution that gets money into the hands of our clients as quickly as possible. It also means, if the current Trudeau Liberal government is serious about reconciliation with first peoples, inclusion of Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools attendees in the national apology. And you win the peace by preparing for – and if necessary fighting – the war.