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Residential-school records may not arrive in time for aboriginal commission’s final report, director says

BY MARK KENNEDY, OTTAWA CITIZEN

OTTAWA — The federal government, after months of delay, is hiring a firm to sort through millions of documents at Library and Archives Canada so they can be passed on to the commission probing the aboriginal residential school saga.

But concerns are already being raised from that group, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Its executive director, Kimberly Murray, said Tuesday she is worried the records will trickle in and arrive too late to be used for the commission’s report.

That multi-volume report is now being written and will be released by June 2015 but must be finished months before then so it can be translated and edited.

“They know we have to do all that,” a frustrated Murray said of the government. “They know it takes a year to do all that.”

Also, she fears the government has decided to limit the scope of material it will search in government archives, potentially overlooking some key material.

The TRC’s mandate says its work must include compiling a complete “historical record “ of the residential schools’ “system and legacy.”

But the government appears to be adopting a more narrow approach, saying it will hire a company to dig out documents pertaining to “the operation and funding of the schools.”

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin said Tuesday the Conservative government’s approach is unacceptable.

“What we’re dealing with is an incredible body of history that explains an enormous amount of the current situation in which indigenous Canadians find themselves,” said Martin.

“At a time when the nation as a whole is coming to grips with what happened in residential schools, for the government to say that they are essentially going to continue to mask the history that we are entitled to know is just wrong.

But the government says it is working with the commission so it can achieve its “important mandate.”

“Our government remains committed to achieving a fair and lasting resolution to the legacy of Indian Residential Schools,” said Erica Meekes, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.

“That is why the prime minister made a historic apology on behalf of all Canadians in 2008 and why we have disclosed over 4.2 million documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

The new concerns are being expressed after the government posted a “request for proposal” last week seeking bids from companies that want the contract at the archives.

However, the research — expected to cost $14 million — is long overdue after a legal tussle between the TRC and the Conservative government.

The commission was established 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.

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.

Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the Commons, his government refused to hand over all of its internal documents. That led to a court action in which a judge ruled Jan. 30, 2013 in the commission’s favour and said the government should pass over “relevant” documents.

But the delays only continued.

Eventually, the government started giving the TRC interim funds — $1.8 million and then $1.3 million — so it could hire someone to begin research in the archives.

But the government won’t choose the firm to conduct the main research for another month, and it’s expected those researchers won’t enter the archives until mid-July.

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