Calgary judge allows Haida Elder’s defamation suit against Catholic Church to proceed

Photo by Tallulah Photo Haida Elder and residential school survivor Sphenia Jones addresses a crowd outside of “Calgary” courts on the day of a hearing to strike down her lawsuit on April 22.

Aaron Hemens
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A “Calgary” judge has declined the Catholic Church’s application to strike down a residential “school” survivor’s class action against them, allowing her defamation lawsuit to proceed.

In his decision last week, J.R. Farrington said that the basic essentials in Haida Elder Sphenia Jones’s pleading of defamation over alleged denialist comments by priest Marcin Mironiuk “are there.”

Jones, who attended the Edmonton Residential School when she was only 11, launched the class action lawsuit on behalf of her and other survivors against Mironiuk, the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, and the Oblate Fathers of Assumption Province.

Jones argued that remarks Mironiuk made during a mass service in 2021 — where he reportedly described the evidence of 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.

“The church brought this application to put an end to the claim before it could even start — effectively trying to silence her so she couldn’t have her day in court,” said Aaron Christoff, a Nehiyaw (Cree) lawyer of Saulteau First Nation who is on Jones’s legal team.

“In a way, the hard work begins now. This was an important step, but it really is just the first step here.”

‘Entirely unconnected to the plaintiff’

Prior to the hearing on April 22, people gathered outside of the “Calgary” courtroom in support of Jones, who travelled from Haida Gwaii with her daughter and had asked for drummers and singers to be present.

When the hearing began, Paul Morrison, one of the lawyers for the church’s legal team, said in his opening arguments that Jones’s statement of claim does not satisfy three requirements in bringing action to a defamation case: that the alleged defamatory statements were addressed to at least one other person other than Jones; that the statements do not refer to Jones; and that the statements would lower Jones’s reputation.

“In our submission, the statement of claim ought to be struck, because it fails to allege or establish one of the three necessary criteria for an action in defamation, namely, that the words in question refer to the plaintiff,” said Morrison.

While reading Mironiuk’s alleged defamatory statements, Morrison noted that the priest did not refer to Jones when he called into question the evidence of unmarked graves at the grounds of former residential “schools.”

Following these remarks, Mironiuk issued an apology and the archdiocese announced it had placed him on administrative leave. According to OMI’s website, he is now a pastor at a Polish Catholic Church in “Edmonton.”

Morrison said that Mironiuk — who made the statements in Polish before a Polish congregation — was comparing the findings to what Mironiuk called “the same lies” made by Jewish people about the Jedwabne pogrom, which was a 1941 massacre of hundreds of Polish Jews in Jedwabne, Poland. 

“The Jewish community raised the alarm and said, ‘This is sacred land. Don’t dig.’ It’s the same lies, my dears, the lies will turn into a truth that people will end up believing. Let’s protect the truth,” Mironiuk allegedly had stated, according to a translation which Morrison read before the court.

Morrison argued that Mironiuk’s statements were “made entirely in circumstances entirely unconnected” to Jones and others.

“Referring to the killing of Jews, by Poles, not referring to neglect of Indian children in residential schools,” he said.

Judge Farrington, however, highlighted how the statement of claim was referring to the harm caused by Mironiuk’s comments where he described the evidence of unmarked graves at residential “schools” as “lies.”

 “(The statements) did refer to Indian residential schools,” said Morrison. 

“But the emphasis of the origin for his remarks in that regard stemmed from the occasion in World War Two involving Polish people and Jewish people, not Indian people.”

Morrison then said that similarities can be made between the history of “Canada’s” residential “school” system and the experiences of Polish people during World War Two. 

“Even if that is so, that still does not in any way, shape or form, establish or indeed allege connection of the plaintiff to the statements in question,” he said. 

He also said that nothing has been pleaded with regards to how other survivors have suffered damage to their reputation by Mironiuk’s comments. 

“In this case, we have no real basis on which to say that the defamatory statements alleged were indeed targeted at the plaintiff,” he said. “There’s nothing pleading that would allow the court to do that.”

‘An attempt to discredit them’

Max Faille, part of Jones’s legal team, said that any claim that no harm was done by Mironiuk’s comments against Jones and other survivors is not true.

He said that Jones and other survivors have “suffered damages” by the comments, hurting their credibility, character and reputation. 

He argued that the alleged defamatory statements did in fact identify Jones and other survivors, as they are the ones who have publicly spoken out about their experiences.

“This is the very group at which the defamatory statements were directed, labelling them as liars and manipulators in an attempt to discredit them,” said Faille.

Jones had openly shared her experiences at the “school” with the public years prior to Mironiuk’s comments, and Faille said that this refutes Morrison’s argument that the allegations are entirely unconnected to her.

“The defamatory statements speak of mass graves, plural, and residential schools — plural,” said Faille.

Christoff followed up by saying that Jones and other survivors have all sustained damage to their reputation by Mironiuk’s alleged defamatory statements, and that each survivor could bring their own independent case against the church.

“Those who have spoken out about the reality of deaths of residential schools are logically the target of Reverend Mironiuk’s attacks on reports of deaths of residential schools as being ‘lies and manipulation,’” said Christoff. 

“Lies and manipulation require liars and manipulators, and who else would be other than people who are speaking out about exactly the subject matter identified by Reverend Mironiuk?”

The impacts on the credibility of survivors as a result of the comments, Christoff said, could result in viewing them as dishonest.

“An ordinary person looking at this would conclude that their character, that their credibility, has been tarnished, and that as a result of these statements made about them, that they are less likely to be believed,” he said.

‘All of the necessary elements are there’

An application to strike is typically made on narrow grounds, Christoff told IndigiNews. What that means is that there isn’t evidence presented before the court, and rather, decisions are based on pleadings brought forth in court documents.

Judge Farrington made his decision the same day, right off the bench, and Christoff said they were pleasantly surprised. 

“At the end of the day, the judge looked at that, and decided on narrow grounds of what’s in the pleadings. All of the necessary elements are there,” said Christoff.

With the class action now proceeding, the next step is to put together an application to get the claim certified. It could be quite a while before the case is back in court, but Christoff said that everyone is feeling positive about the result of the hearing.

“I know Sphenia herself was really, really thrilled with the outcome. There were a lot of tears and hugs in the courtroom,” he said.

“Just what it means for her — a vindication for her, even at this stage and for what she’s fighting here.”

Jones said that she hopes that her case and the hearing’s results sets an example for other survivors to follow in seeking justice.

“It’s going to open up a lot of hearts,” she said. “I feel it in my heart that a lot more people are going to come forward.”