Indian residential school survivors continue battling Ottawa in the courts to prove abuse cases

Residential school survivors continue to battle federal lawyers who failed to provide documents which could potentially validate claims of abuse at the hands of school staff.

This comes on the heels of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions report released earlier in the month.

Two groups of survivors who attended separate Indian residential schools allege Ottawa is still not living up to the terms of the settlement agreement which set out a process for determining compensation for abuses suffered by survivors at Indian residential schools. The groups say federal lawyers continue to withhold documents from the Independent Assessment Process.

Justice Canada has not carried out its legal obligation of recovering documents in relation to crimes of abuse committed against people who attended Bishop Horden residential school in Moose Factory, Ont., according to the Ontario Superior Court.

This instance is similar to what happened last year when the Superior Court ruled that the government withheld vital documentation – reportedly thousands of pages of evidence — that would prove the claims of the survivors who attended St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont.

Under the IAP, Ottawa is required to disclose relevant documentation to survivors about their time in residential schools. The information is then compiled in “narratives.” These narratives “summarize information about: each Indian Residential School; documents mentioning sexual abuse at the particular school; and alleged perpetrators of assaults who are POIs (Persons of Interest),” according to the Superior Court ruling.

St. Anne’s residential school has an infamous reputation for being one of the more brutal places Indigenous children experienced in Canada – the most atrocious discipline tool being an electric chair.

Survivors from St. Anne’s were back in court last Tuesday in an effort to access the comprehensive files gathered by the Ontario Provincial Police in the 1990s.

Twelve thousand documents were released to former students and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after they won their case. However, significant portions of the documents have been redacted, rendering them useless at best, says a lawyer for the survivors.

The hearing was adjourned for a later date.

“We get the documents and they’re blacked out,” said Lawyer Fay Brunning, who represented a select number of survivors from St. Anne’s and Bishop Horden. “They don’t do reports – all they do is list documents with nondescript information, so they don’t outline what kind of abuse happened.

“A whole year later they’re fighting,” she continued. “Even when they had to disclose the documents they’ve made them useless.”

In the other case, nine claimants, all of whom are survivors of Bishop Horden, alleged they were victims of sexual violence, while others testified they witnessed staff being removed for blatant misconduct.

Documentation of these events remain in limbo.

The court ruled that additional departments, such as the RCMP, will be scoured in an effort to help prove these claims in court.

The government came to court empty handed after searching the archives of Aboriginal Affairs and Library and Archives Canada.

“I had a number of clients who told me in the 1960s that there was terrible abuse happening at Bishop Horden and the police got involved,” said Brunning. “There’s no documents about this in the narrative or in the POI report, nothing about it.”

After conducting a cross-examination on March 31, Brunning discovered the government neglected to recover documents from the RCMP, Justice Canada and Health Canada.

“That’s why I went to court,” she said. “Because the AFN and I both felt that was responsibly expected under this settlement agreement.”

“I think what we’re seeing is the failure of the federal government to show good faith in this process,” said Charlie Angus, New Democrat MP whose jurisdiction encompasses where the schools used to operate. “The government is responsible for collecting documents regarding the history of an institution and whether or not criminal acts occurred, sexual or physical abuse.”

This evidence is supposed to help prevent claimants from trying to prove what happened to them, he said.

In other words, the process is supposed to be non-adversarial.

“Where the government gets themselves into trouble is their refusal to seek out the documents,” he said. “This is their duty,” he added. “They have to do this.”

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