The Truth and Reconciliation commission into Indian residential school abuse faces a deadline to wrap up, while historical documents pile up.
By: Donovan Vincent
The race is on for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission probing abuse in Indian residential schools to comb through mountains of historical government records in search of documents pertaining to this painful chapter in Canada’s history.
For the past four years, the commission has been holding public hearings across the country during which survivors have told riveting personal stories about mistreatment in residential schools.
Those hearings have wrapped up and by June 2015 the commission must write a report that includes recommendations for preventing a similar tragedy in the future.
Kimberly Murray, a lawyer and executive director for the commission, says there’s not enough time left.
“There’s no way we’ll be able to go through and collect every document,’’ says Murray, a Mohawk from the Kanesatake reserve.
A major piece of the commission’s work is pulling together all the witness statements, documents and research on residential schools and putting the massive haul in a new National Research Centre to be located in Manitoba.
The document search is a sleuthing job not unlike one Sherlock Holmes would undertake.
Already the federal government has, under duress and court order, provided 4.2 million documents to the commission.
But recently, Ottawa issued an RFP to hire a firm that will pore through an additional estimated 60,000 boxes stored in vaults in five Library and Archives Canada locations across the country.
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Not every box will contain documents germane to the commission and that’s the tricky part. The job requires painstaking sifting to flag the relevant records.
While there hasn’t been an eyeball on every one of the 4.2 million documents already provided, important ones involving incidents like the deaths of students in residential schools have been looked at and reviewed, Murray said.
“We have key topics that we’re writing about. Every Health Canada record we’ve looked at. Every hospital record we have we’ve looked at,’’ she says.
Researchers follow a trail, like following breadcrumbs. When they come across documents with dialogue pertaining to a subject the commission is writing about, that dialogue is traced back through other records. Often these dialogues happened between federal departments — the RCMP, for example, talking to Health Canada.
The residential schools intersected with many government agencies, including National Defence.
“We’ve seen photographs of the Department of National Defence taking (residential school) children to hospitals,’’ Murray said. “Some children were also temporarily housed in military barracks.’’
Murray pointed out that aside from 33 federal departments in Canada, including Aboriginal Affairs, the commission is also waiting for documents from churches that ran the residential schools.
“Many Catholic entities have not produced their documents to us yet,’’ Murray said.
Canada’s residential schools for aboriginal people began in the 1870s and the last one closed in 1996. There were more than 130 of these government-funded schools across the country that were set up to eradicate parental involvement in aboriginal children’s cultural, intellectual and educational development.
Residents suffered horrible sexual and physical abuse. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in the schools. An estimated 80,000 former students are still living today.
The $60-million, five-year commission was formed as part of a settlement agreement.
There’s been finger pointing at Ottawa over the fact the remaining time is too short to sort through all the relevant records.
When asked about that complaint, Andrea Richer, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt, pointed out the federal government helped the commission get a one-year extension to complete its mandate.
“Our government remains committed to achieving a fair and lasting resolution to the legacy of Indian Residential Schools,’’ Richer said in a statement.
Gordon Williams, 73, a former residential school student and member of the commission’s survivor committee that advises the inquiry, said survivors like him did their part by telling their stories to the commission.
“A lot of people were very emotional about what happened,’’ he said referring to the testimonials the commission heard.
Now it’s time for the documents and records to speak, said Williams, who attended the Birtle Indian Residential School, west of Winnipeg, from 1957 to 1961.
Murray says although the commission’s mandate wraps up next year, the story won’t end there.
“When we’re done, we’re not walking away without making sure that the legal obligation to produce those records continues past the commission, and those records be given to the National Research Centre,’’ Murray said.