Indian residential school historical record threatened by TRC, Aboriginal Affairs bumbling: Auditor General



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OTTAWA-The “permanent legacy” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is at risk and a complete record of the Indian residential school system may never materialize if the current disorder surrounding the handling and transferring of historical documents continues, according to the Auditor General of Canada.

In Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s spring 2013 report, his office found that nearly three years after the work began and with a year left before the money runs out, no one knows how much it will cost to gather all the historical documents, who will pay for it or what materials are even “relevant” for the project.

The report found that the TRC and the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs had failed to find “common ground” on the transfer of historical documents from Ottawa’s vaults.

“We concluded that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada had not taken adequate steps in relations to the creation of as complete a historical record as possible of the Indian residential school system and legacy,” said the report, in a section titled, Creating a Historical Record of Indian Residential Schools.

The report found that the TRC and the federal department couldn’t agree on what constituted relevant documents, where to search, what time frames the documents would cover, what formats to use and who would pay for it all.

“The scope of the undertaking is still undefined. Canada and the Commission need to cooperate in order to assess what has been accomplished, what remains to be done, how long this will take and what resources are required,” said the report.

Both the TRC and Aboriginal Affairs agreed with the report’s findings and recommendations.

The TRC and Aboriginal Affairs said they would jointly work to define “the work to be completed” and “develop a project plan for the provision of documents.”

The Library and Archives Canada estimates that the total cost of gathering historical Indian Residential School documents could hit at least $40 million and take 10 years to find and digitize all the material. The documents are scattered across 24 departments and agencies and that, laid side by side, would stretch for about 20 kilometres or fill 69,000 boxes.

The TRC has a total budget of $55 million, plus $8 million additionally for administrative costs. The TRC’s mandate ends in July 2014.

Aboriginal Affairs told the Auditor General’s Office that it has obtained about $20 million to provide the documents, but $5 million of those funds could not be used as a result bureaucratic obstacles.

The search for documents faced a rough initial start following the signing of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2006. Despite the agreement including a section requiring Canada to provide “all relevant” documents to the commission, Ottawa failed to make one department responsible for coordinating and gathering the material. It wasn’t until February 2010 that the Clerk of the Privy Council tapped Aboriginal Affairs to lead the project.

The TRC and Aboriginal Affairs, however, then failed to come to any conclusion on the definition of “relevant” documents, and the squabble eventually ended up in Federal Court. There were also disputes from other federal departments about their roles and responsibilities in tracking down Indian residential school documents for the TRC.

Aboriginal Affairs at one point claimed that it had already found the relevant documents for the TRC, but based this assertion on documents it had compiled in relation to settling claims from individual Indian residential school survivors.

“The department’s view was that most of the relevant residential school documents in Library and Archives Canada had already been collected,” said the Auditor General’s report. “There was no analysis from the department supporting that view.”

The department then took the position that Canada’s responsibility did not include searching for additional archival documents and federal departments did not have to go digging for documents at Library and Archives Canada. It effectively transferred that responsibility to the TRC which “strongly disagreed” and held to its claim that the federal government’s responsibility included finding archived documents.

The issue hit Federal Court and on Jan. 30, 2012, the court ruled that Canada’s obligation included documents held in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada.

The Auditor General’s report also found that the TRC’s plan to create a national research centre to hold the estimated over one million residential school document has also been fraught with problems.

Despite having selected an organization to handle this project in October 2012, the TRC had still not developed a “detailed plan to guide its work and resolve a number of issues affecting the transfer” of historical material. The report found that the TRC had not set “the terms and conditions of the agreement with the selected organization, the description of the historical record…or the process of transferring the documents…to the national research centre.”

The TRC had also failed to obtain “disposition authority” from Library and Archives Canada, which is required by federal law, to dispose of its documents.

The TRC said that it is developing a detailed plan and was in the process of having detailed discussions with the selected organization, federal government departments and the Manitoba government. The TRC said it was also in discussion with Library and Archives Canada to get disposition authority.

“It remains to be seen what impacts the disagreements to date will have on achieving a fair, comprehensive and lasting resolution to the legacy of residential schools,” said the Auditor General’s report.

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