The judge who presided over the landmark court case involving former students who were abused at the Alberni Indian Residential School has died.
Former Chief Justice Donald Brenner died suddenly at his home last Saturday. The married father of two was 64.
Brenner presided over the Blackwater vs. Plint case, which ran from 1998 to 2001.
The trial involved students who attended the Alberni Indian Residential School who sought damages for abuse that took place between the 1940s and 1960s.
The case lifted the dark cloak off of the physical and sexual abuse endured by aboriginal children at the hands of AIRS staff.
“The court case began a process that really was something that needed to happen for healing to begin,” Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president Cliff Atleo said.
Brenner described the Blackwater case on the Vancouver Foundation website as his most difficult while a judge.
“I listened to evidence of physical and sexual abuse that went back many, many years but which involved people who were children at the time,” he said.
“It was difficult hearing these plaintiffs tell their stories,” recalled Brenner, who said he could not fathom that these incidents had happened to young children.
The case lanced old wounds in former students, but it also served as a healing salve.
“It started opening the doors for many of our people to embrace that courage that was demonstrated by the judge in hearing that case,” Atleo said.
In the end Brenner ruled in favour of the students.
His decision was ultimately upheld after being appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The case wasn’t a miracle cure that worked overnight.
Instead, it was like a long-term course of treatment.
“Our people still struggle. Some haven’t yet been able to step forward, but for others some justice was realized because of Justice Donald Brenner’s ruling,” Atleo said.
Brenner graduated from law school in 1970 and was called to the bar in 1971.
He was named to the Supreme Court in 1993 and chief justice in 2000.
After retiring in 2009 he practised dispute resolution with Farris Vaughan Wills & Murphy LLP.
He was born in Toronto, and earned his pilot’s licence at age 17.