The BC Human Rights Tribunal hearing in Nelson involving Sons of Freedom Doukhobors removed from their families in the 1950s adjourned soon after it began this morning when it was revealed the complainants’ lawyer resigned on Friday.
No explanation was given publicly and Walter Swetlishoff, who represents the group known as the New Denver Survivors collective, declined comment on the reason for their counsel’s withdrawal.
However, he indicated he would prefer that the case go ahead, given the length of time it has taken to reach this point.
“This case has been going on for eight years,” he told reporters afterward. “It’s got to be resolved. It’s taking a toll on us. We can’t delay it any longer.”
The hearing is expected to resume Tuesday at 1 p.m. at the Prestige Resort, providing certain documents from the group’s former lawyer arrive by courier.
Tribunal chair Enid Marion, who is hearing the case alone, met privately with Swetlishoff and government lawyer Rob Horricks for about 15 minutes before announcing the adjournment.
“I am concerned about the complainants having a full and fair opportunity to present their material,” she said, adding that the late withdrawal of their lawyer put the survivors’ group in a difficult position.
Marion said she encouraged Swetlishoff to give his evidence and any other witnesses to make themselves available.
The hearing began with preliminary remarks by the chair and the admission of a series of documents as exhibits.
Marion explained the Tribunal advised Swetlishoff that it would be willing to grant a short adjournment in order to obtain new counsel, but he wanted to proceed as scheduled.
The admission of historical documents from the 1950s was briefly discussed with the government arguing many are “irrelevant and prejudicial” to the case.
The complaint, filed in 2004, alleges discrimination by the government in its response to a 1999 BC Ombudsman’s report that said the group was entitled to an apology and compensation.
Swetlishoff then read a statement, explaining that despite the resignation of their Community Legal Assistance Society lawyer, he didn’t want to delay the case. He asked the Tribunal to base its findings entirely on documents, as they would not present witnesses.
Swetlishoff said it would be impossible for him to take the case on himself on such short notice.
“I am not capable. I am not a lawyer,” he said.
Swetlishoff said he expected to testify as a witness, but taking over as counsel was “unimaginable” without legal training.
At that point, Marion asked to meet with the parties privately.
When the hearing resumed, she announced the adjournment pending the arrival of documentation. Swetlishoff was asked to confirm their arrival to the other parties.
The room was packed with about 50 people, perhaps half of whom were members of the New Denver Survivors.
The hearing is scheduled for four weeks.