Boys in a classroom c. 1945 at St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. Edmund Metatawabin collection/Algoma University
NDP MP Charlie Angus sent a letter Monday to Justice Minister Peter MacKay, charging the government with breaching its legal obligations to residential school survivors and calling for extreme steps to repair the damage done to the rights of survivors.
"I imagine anyone looking at this would be appalled by the actions of the federal government," Angus said in an interview with CBC News.
Angus's letter to MacKay is the latest step in a dispute between the federal government and former students of St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. The former students accuse the federal government of withholding documents that would help them prove their claims of abuse. Angus has been pressing the government for months on the issue, with little success.
Children at St. Anne's endured horrific abuse, including sexual abuse, torture in an electric chair and being made to eat their own vomit.
Hundreds of those students have sought compensation under the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), which is part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Terms of the agreement spell out the government's obligations to hand over documents to adjudicators with the IAP, including those mentioning abuse at the schools in question.
A five-year OPP investigation resulted in the conviction of several former employees of the school. Court documents show that in 2003, the federal government applied for and obtained copies of the court transcripts when it faced lawsuits by former students.
However, documents show that federal officials said, for the purposes of the IAP, that there were "no known incidents found in documents regarding sexual abuse at Fort Albany IRS." It turns out the government not only knew about the OPP documents that detailed the abuse, but it had them in its possession.
"Minister MacKay needs to recognize that in suppressing this evidence, they have done serious damage to a legal process put in place to get closure for victims," said Angus. "If the apology has any meeting, they have to restore the Truth and Reconciliation Process, sit down with the survivors...and say 'we're going to make it right.'"
The dispute is headed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Dec. 17. The government says it is concerned releasing the documents would breach privacy laws. However, when the government applied to get the court transcripts for its own purposes as a defendant in 2003, it argued that despite privacy issues, it should have access to the documents based on the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act.
Fay Brunning, a lawyer for some of the St. Anne's claimants, says IAP adjudicators assessing claims need all the information available to determine the veracity of the stories they are hearing, especially when the stories are so horrific they might be difficult to believe.
"Survivors should be able to trust the process," Brunning said in an interview with CBC News. "The government not complying with its obligation to hand over documents is revictimizing these people. Hiding abuse is offensive and unethical."
Brunning was able, with a court order, to get transcripts from two of the St. Anne's trials to help with four upcoming hearings for her clients. But she says it's not clear what will happen for those survivors who have already had their cases dealt with through the IAP without access to the trial transcripts.
There was no response to a request for comment from MacKay's office.
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