A judge has ordered the federal government to provide survivors of one of the country’s most notorious aboriginal residential schools with thousands of documents created by police during a multiyear investigation into physical and sexual abuse at the institution.
In a strongly worded ruling Tuesday, Justice Paul Perell of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, said Canada must hand over all Ontario Provincial Police documents in its possession related to the investigation at the St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. and must search out and disclose those it does not have.
“Based on its unduly narrow interpretation of its obligations, Canada has not adequately complied with its disclosure obligations with respect to the St. Anne’s narrative,” Justice Perell wrote in his ruling. He also ordered the federal government to pay the legal costs of the roughly 60 school survivors who took the government to court to obtain the documents that could support their claims for compensation.
Fay Brunning, the lawyer who represented the former students, said the ruling is a huge victory for her clients. “They had to go to this school, starting at age five or six, for up to eight years of their life and they lost their childhood innocence,” Ms. Brunning said.
The OPP conducted a five-year investigation into abuses at the school during the 1990s that resulted in the conviction of five former employees. The Northern Ontario school took in children for seven decades, ending in the 1970s.
Justice Perell pointed out in his ruling that St. Anne’s was the site of some of the most egregious incidents of abuse within the residential school system. “It is known, for example, that an electric chair was used to shock students as young as six years old,” he wrote. “It is known, for example, that the staff at St. Anne’s residential school would force ill students to eat their own vomit.”
The former students want the OPP documents to bolster their case for compensation under the Independent Assessment Process, an out-of-court method for resolving claims of sexual and serious physical abuse at the church-run schools that operated throughout most of the past century.
The IAP is part of the settlement the government reached with the former students of the schools. That settlement included the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to determine what went on behind the walls of the institutions – a commission that also went to court last year to force the federal government to hand over documents it required to do its work.
Under the terms of the IAP, Ottawa must search for and report any information about former employees of the schools who are named in survivors’ claims. In the case of St. Anne’s, the government did not share the OPP documents or acknowledge it had its own copies. Instead, federal officials told the IAP panel there were “no known incidents found in documents regarding sexual abuse at Fort Albany IRS.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the ruling came about because the government was in possession of documents that were the property of the OPP.
"Our government sought direction from the court on whether these documents could be turned over in order to bring clarity to these issues, and in consideration of privacy concerns," Mr. Valcourt said in an e-mail. "We will continue to ensure that we fulfill our obligations under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and will be reviewing the court decision to determine next steps."
Charlie Angus, the New Democrat who represents the region where the school is located, said the ruling was vindication for the survivors of St. Anne’s but “the thing I keep thinking is, why did they have to go to this extraordinary length to get basic justice?”
Julian Falconer, the lawyer for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said this is the second time in 12 months that a court has had to intervene and ensure Canada honoured its obligations under the settlement agreement. “When one reflects on why this should be necessary,” Mr. Falconer said, “you come to the inescapable conclusion that there are those on Canada’s side that simply don’t get it.”