Between 1936 and 1984, the St. Anne’s Residential School near James Bay, Ontario was run under the authority of the Catholic Church. For decades, victims of St. Anne’s have been telling their tragic stories. One common thread that seems to interweave through each story is that of abuse and torture.
Survivor and former Chief of the Fort Albany First Nation, Edmund Metatawabin, was 7 years old when he was forcefully strapped to a homemade electrical chair at St. Anne’s school.
Metatawabin remembers the procedure for the electric chair. Boys were brought into a room and lined up by age. “The little ones first,” he recalled. “And I was about number seven or eight.” Metatawabin explained that one by one, children were forced to sit on a wooden seat with their arms strapped to the metal chair. A staff member stood by a wooden box with a crank, ready to send the electric charge to the chair and to the poor soul strapped to it.
He remembers so vividly, even though he was so young, the legs of the children, dangling over the edge of the seat. When the electric charge was sent, the little feet of the children would fly all around. The missionaries stood close by, laughing. He said that after all the boys received shocks, the electric chair was then taken into the girls’ area, where the same procedure was repeated.
— Two Row Times (@TwoRowTimes) January 9, 2014
Metawabin stated that although this method of torture was mostly used for punishment purposes, he also noted that, anything could have been considered punishable. He recalled children being punished with electric shocks for laughing too loud, smiling and even for walking too slow. The electric chair was also used to entertain staff and visiting dignitaries.
Finally, in the mid-1990’s, after much pressure from victims and their supporters, the Ontario Provincial Police undertook a massive investigation at St. Anne’s. The operation took 5 years and was one of the largest police investigations into sexual abuse in the province’s history.
Once the investigation was complete, the government sealed the results. Survivors of St. Anne’s have been fighting for years to have the OPP investigation results released by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA). However, even though survivors and the general public were not allowed to see the results, the OPP arrested five former school employees, all of whom were eventually convicted.
When survivors applied for compensation with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, they asked the DAA for the OPP files. Not only were they denied the reports but were told they (DAA) did not have the reports, which proved to be a lie.
This past Tuesday, the government went before the Ontario Superior Court and argued that it should not have to disclose the documents even though in 2008, the federal government was ordered to release all documents to the TRC and to the victims and their families. Since then, the government has done everything in their power to delay this process. The issue of the publication ban and sealing order took up most of the day Tuesday. Justice Paul Perell heard arguments from all sides, including lawyers for the St. Anne’s School survivors, and the TRC Justice Perell gave his decision late Tuesday afternoon on the publication ban. “No names of any individual involved in the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) could be published in any form, including the internet, unless the person gave their consent.” Justice Perell said he would not hear the motion about the sealing order until next year.
What we do know from documents disclosed thus far is that Indigenous children were subjected to medical experiments. More specifically, children were denied nutrient rich foods in order to study the effects of vitamin deficiency. Some predict that with the disclosure of more documents, even worse horrors will be revealed including torture tactics like the electric chair that was used at St. Anne’s Residential School.
According to a recent government report, the DAA spends more money on litigation than any other department. In 2012 alone, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ legal bill was over $106 million.
Survivors are trying to seek compensation through the IAP, which is an out of court process for the resolution of claims of sexual abuse, serious physical abuse and long-term psychological consequences. Other survivors have joined in on a class-action lawsuit.
Either way, in order to support their claims, survivors need the documents from the OPP investigation, which currently, they are not able to access. The investigation is comprised of 7,000 pages of documents including almost 1,000 witness statements.
Residential school survivors who are seeking compensation for reconciliation must show documents to validate their claims. Metatawabin said that survivors are getting frustrated with the stalling tactics of both the federal and provincial government and that time is running out for Elders who are seeking truth, justice and reconciliation.