The late headmasters of a Christian boarding school controlled every aspect of children’s lives in order to break their spirits, a lawyer representing former students suing the defunct institution told a Toronto court on Monday.
The school made students snitch on classmates they caught “sinning,” leading to punishments that ranged from psychological torment to physical beatings, Loretta Merritt said in her opening statement at a trial for the class-action lawsuit against Grenville Christian College in Brockville, Ont.
Her clients, who lived in residence at the school between 1973 and 1997, are asking the court to find that the institution and its leadership breached their duty of care to the children in their charge.
Merritt alleged students were at turns publicly humiliated and beaten with wooden paddles. All of this, she said, was part of Grenville’s culture – an allegation the defence denies.
“It involves a system of intentional acts done for the purpose of breaking the spirits of the children – and the individuality and autonomy of the children – in order to remake them in the Grenville way, meaning obedient and subjugative,” she said. “In other words, good Christians as the leadership defined that.”
That differs from other certified class actions alleging negligence in schools, she said.
“In most cases, the systemic negligence is institutional failure to uncover the abusive acts of a few bad apples,” she said. “Here the systemic behaviour is much worse.”
Merritt said the school dictated everything from who students socialized with to the underwear they wore.
Five representative plaintiffs are set to take the stand over the course of a five-week trial, laying out those allegations and others.
Defence lawyer Geoffrey Adair said that some of the allegations he expects to hear are jarring, but the court should consider them as outliers rather than symptoms of a system designed to tear students down.
Students were held to high standards, and a breach of those standards “brought about punishments or detentions,” Adair said. One such punishment was a so-called “light session,” which saw staff and students gather to discuss various transgressions.
The plaintiffs describe the sessions as hours-long affairs during which Grenville staff screamed at students, accusing them of various sins and forcing them to confess.
Adair describes them differently.
“People would be assembled in the chapel and when there was an issue that affected everybody at the school, this would be publicly impressed. The offenders would be made known and castigated,” he said in his opening remarks. “No doubt that could be humiliating. But those practices are not in and of themselves abuse.”
He added that those experiences were not universal, or even widespread.
“When you hear the evidence the defendants present, you will seriously wonder if these people went to two different schools,” Adair told the court.
“And when you hear how many students were satisfied with their experience and education and felt no abuse, you’ll wonder how there could possibly have been a systematic abuse for the (plaintiff) class as a whole.”
The defence describes in court documents a picturesque campus that was equal parts school and loving community, intent on building students up so they could be more Christ-like.
The first witness to take the stand, a former staff member who also lived on Grenville’s grounds, said things weren’t always so rosy.
Joan Childs testified Monday that one of the headmasters ordered her to discipline two girls accused of misbehaviour – including wetting the bed – by dressing them in the uniform worn by elementary students.
“I sent these two little girls in the eighth grade to class wearing an elementary school uniform and a sign that said ‘I refuse to grow up,”’ Childs said.
She said that if she didn’t comply with the headmasters’ wishes, she’d be punished. Those punishments took the form of hours of “light sessions,” or periods of forced silence when she was forbidden from speaking to her husband, even in private.
“We’d be obedient because we honestly thought this was a good way to live,” said Childs.
The two men specifically named in the class-action lawsuit, the co-founders and former headmasters of the school, will not be there to defend themselves.
Both J. Alastair Haig and Charles Farnsworth died in the decade since the suit was first conceived. Haig died in 2009, while Farnsworth died in 2015.