Survivors to decide fate of documents, judge has ruled

Imagine having children that you love so dearly and you try to do the best you can for them: provide for them, love them, comfort them, nurture them. Imagine a foreign agency ripping your child from your embrace. Being unable to do that one thing that is your utmost responsibility as a parent: to protect your child. You hide your child from this foreign agency, only to have them threaten you with law enforcement, a stiff fine or imprisonment if you did not hand over your child: your flesh and blood, your reason to live, to this wretched system. Now imagine, a few months down the road when your child returns home for the summer. Who is that? Is that your child? What happened to that long beautiful hair? What happened to that carefree, happy child? Who is this solemn, seemingly soul-less and sad child that stands before you?

Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established, forty thousand survivors have come forward to tell individual stories of their horrific experiences at Indian Residential Schools (IRS) in Canada. These stories include many instances of: sexual abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, torture, preventable disease and malnutrition. Aside from survivors telling their stories as part of the TRC compensation process, they also described their experiences as part of their healing journey, truth-telling and public education.

The majority of students who attended residential schools lost their language, culture and spiritual identity. Between the 1860s and 1990s, more then 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended these schools which were operated by religious groups with the financial help of the Government of Canada. Approximately half of the students of these schools are no longer living and never had the chance to tell their stories to the TRC.

Now that the TRC has wrapped up and all evidence collected and documented, some have been fighting to have all documentation destroyed. Dan Shapiro, who is the chief adjudicator of the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) stated in a press release back in June, “Promises of confidentiality were properly made to claimants. These promises must be kept. The only way that the confidentiality of participants can be respected and their dignity preserved is through the destruction of all IAP records after the conclusion of the compensation process.”

The TRC was formed after a class-action lawsuit was settled between the survivors of these schools, the Canadian government, and the churches that ran them. Out of the settlement, the survivors set aside 60 million dollars to establish an organization that would document and provide evidence of the atrocities that went on at residential schools which were littered all across Canada. Today, you don’t have to look too far to see the intergenerational effects of the residential school system in First Nations communities. Abuse, domestic violence, addictions, suicide, and depression are all what is known as residual effects of the residential school system.

According to Justice Paul M. Perell’s decision in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, released August 6, 2014, “My answer to the question is yes, the documents should be destroyed, but only after a 15-year retention period, during which the survivors of the Indian Residential Schools may choose to spare some of their documents from destruction and instead have the documents with redactions to protect the personal information of others transferred to the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.”

“During the 15-year retention period, there shall be a court approved notice program to advise the survivors of their choice to transfer some of the documents instead of having the documents destroyed,” explained Perell in his 68 page long decision.

Perell also explained that the TRC was established to, “create a historical record of the residential school system and ensure its legacy is preserved and made accessible to the public for future study and use.”

According to court transcripts, those who supported the destruction of the IAP documents included the Assembly of First Nations, Twenty-Four Catholic entities, Nine Catholic Entities, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and ‘Independent Counsel’, lawyers who acted for IAP Claimants.

Perell stated that, “The destruction of the documents, however, should not come too soon because survivors of the Indian Residential Schools may change his or her mind about the destruction of the IAP Documents. It is the survivor’s story to tell or not tell and it is the survivor’s individual decision that must be respected.”

What seems to be of utmost importance in this whole judicial ordeal is privacy and confidentiality: not only of the victim but of the perpetrator as well. According to court transcripts, 32% of the abuse that happened at residential schools was student-on-student abuse. Students were originally abused by the employees at the residential schools and then went on to abuse each other in the same manner. Since many of these children are now adults and both often reside within the same First Nations community, it is important to protect their identity.

This decision has brought some peace of mind to survivors who explained in detail and were represented by Counsel during the judicial hearing, that had they known there might be a chance of their testimony being made public, they would have never made any statements to the TRC to begin with.

Survivors can now rest assured that during the 15 year retention period, a program will be set up which will contact them and advise them of their choice to either have the documents destroyed or preserved. If they choose to preserve the documents, names of individuals listed in their testimony will be redacted so as to protect their identity from the public eye.

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