By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–Indian residential school records on dead and missing children and abuse complaints to the RCMP may never see the light of day if Ottawa gets its way in its battle with the commission created to shed light on Canada’s darkest chapter, according to court documents.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is taking Ottawa to court over its refusal to hand over millions of records related to the 150 year existence of Indian residential schools. The court fight has been described as a battle for control over the history of residential schools.
The TRC alleges in court documents that the Harper government is refusing to release documents and files written following the closure of a residential school, even though some of these schools opened and closed on an ongoing basis and sometimes shut down and reopened in the same building.
“To the extent that documents were generated by Canada about a particular residential school after its closure, these materials would be necessary to complete the historical record of the (Indian residential school system),” stated Ken Roach, research advisor to the TRC, in an affidavit. “(The documents) would be essential to understand the particular legacy of that school.”
The Harper government’s stonewalling on documents also includes files held by the RCMP, said Julian Falconer, a lawyer representing the TRC in its court battle against Ottawa. Falconer said the RCMP received criminal complaints about abuse in residential schools, but those files are still locked away.
“There is no doubt there are RCMP files,” said Falconer. “We don’t have those files.”
The missing files also include documents on individual schools. According to the TRC, at one point this summer, the commission had listed 37 residential schools that lacked accompanying documentation and 52 that had partial documentation.
According to Roach’s affidavit, the Harper government is refusing to release files created after the shut-down of residential schools including:
- Documents on allegations on the treatment, health and well being of students.
- Documents containing allegations against staff on mistreatment of students.
- Documents on missing children and graves following investigations.
- Documents on the impact on survivors, families and communities.
- Documents on operations, policies and administration of closed schools.
- Documents on discussions by federal bureaucrats on how to respond to Indian residential school complaints from students, families and Aboriginal organizations.
The federal government is refusing to release these documents partly based on their still uncertain definition of one word: Relevant.
Under the multi-billion dollar Indian residential school settlement agreement, which created the TRC, Canada and the churches agreed to “provide all relevant documents in their possession and control” to “ensure the efficacy of the truth and reconciliation process.”
Yet, according to the TRC’s court filings, Canada has refused to reveal their definition of relevant despite receiving repeated requests since at least May 2011.
TRC officials were initially told the government couldn’t reveal their definition without permission of the Department of Justice, and then they were told the definition needed to first be finalized and approved. Then in September 2011, federal officials said they still didn’t have a formal definition of the word.
The TRC obtained an internal presentation to Parks Canada from January of this year that stated the Department of Aboriginal Affairs had a working definition of the word that was broader than the public position Canada intended to take on the issue.
“The (TRC) has yet to receive Canada’s definition of the word relevance,” said the TRC’s factum.
Yet, despite the uncertainty around what the Harper government actually means when it uses the word, it appeared in the statement from Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan’s response to news Ottawa was facing court action over its failure to hand over millions of residential school documents to the TRC.
“We are working with 22 other government departments and with the TRC to ensure all relevant Indian residential schools related documents are made available to the TRC,” said spokesman Jan O’Driscoll, who added that the commission has already received almost one million documents.
When asked what he meant by the world relevant, O’Driscoll said he couldn’t comment because the issue was before the courts.
O’Driscoll’s statement also said that “Canada aims to disclose all of its remaining documents relevant to the TRCs mandate by Jun 30, 2013.”
It appears that the department’s stated time-frame will wreck havoc on the TRC’s final report. One of the central volumes of the report, which deals with the legacy of residential schools and draws on all the other sections of the final document, needs to be completed by May 2013.
It will take about a year to finalize, translate and publish the TRC’s final report.
The TRC’s mandate expires July 1, 2014.