BY MARK KENNEDY, POSTMEDIA NEWS
OTTAWA — The federal government was warned in an internal report two years ago of “daunting” risks if it failed to locate archival documents connected to the aboriginal residential schools saga.
Among the dangers: the courts might strip the government of the task of finding all the records; there could be “increased anger” among Canadians about government delays; and many former residential school students might die before learning the full truth behind the scandal.
This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government came under fire for dragging its feet on a court-ordered obligation to provide millions of documents from Library and Archives Canada to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that is examining the residential schools scandal.
The records are needed by the commission to learn the truth of the decades-long saga, such as piecing together the role played by the federal government — including former cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats.
For years, the government has been struggling with how to deal with millions of records in its files.
The 2012 internal report, prepared by a consultant for Aboriginal Affairs, was obtained by Postmedia News under the Access to Information Act.
“Canadians are saddened by the IRS (Indian residential school) legacy but tired of government delays in addressing the issues,” said a March 15, 2012 presentation to Aboriginal Affairs officials by the outside consultant, the Eaton Group, hired to examine the issue.
“Increased anger will likely occur if the TRC has to extend its mandate over failure to achieve documents.”
Between the 1870s and 1996, about 150,000 aboriginal children were pulled from their homes by the federal government and sent to the church-run schools, where many suffered physical and sexual abuse and at least 4,000 died.
Postmedia News has learned that the government, a full year after being ordered by a court to produce the records to the commission, hasn’t even issued a request for proposal (RFP) for outside firms to bid on a contract to sort through the documents at federal archives so they can be passed along.
The TRC’s executive director, Kimberly Murray, said the delay means the commission won’t get access to all the documents by the time it finishes writing its report, due to be released by June 2015.
Murray said she was told by Aboriginal Affairs the RFP has been delayed because the department does not yet have approval from Treasury Board to spend the money.
Aboriginal Affairs, which has declined an interview, has instead issued a four-paragraph statement and said there is no “definitive cost projection” for the work, although the estimated cost for the research contract is $14 million.
The Eaton Group was hired by the department “to examine the complexities and costs inherent in Canada carrying out its mandate to the TRC” in 2012.
The firm looked at estimates of how many records existed and how they could be collected and transferred to the commission.
“The risks associated with failure to locate relevant records are daunting to say the least,” it warned in a point-form presentation.
In addition to potentially angering Canadians, the firm said, “the courts’ trust in Canada could be destroyed and they might opt to pull Canada out as the administrator and oversee the work themselves.”
As well, it warned that “if Canada does not develop a good system upfront, it could mean huge costs later; we should not look at this piece meal”
Finally, the company noted another problem if records remain tucked away in the archives: “Many former residents of the IRS are elderly and sick and may not live the see the legacy of IRS documented and accessible to the public.”
The residential schools saga, which scarred the lives of thousands of aboriginal children and their families, is considered by many to be Canada’s greatest historical shame.
A lawsuit against the federal government and churches resulted in a settlement that included payments to those affected and the creation in 2008 of the commission. Its job is to hold public hearings so people can tell their stories, collect records and establish a National Research Centre. Similarly, the government is obliged under the settlement to provide relevant documents to the commission for its report.