Ottawa is restricting access to federal archives and withholding several key documents on church-run residential schooling, says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged with exposing the dark legacy of this period in aboriginal education.
The commission’s mandate is to create a comprehensive historical record of residential schooling in Canada with a purpose of helping victims to heal and encourage reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians. But in an interim report released Friday in Vancouver, the commission says the federal government and some churches are frustrating their efforts to search through their archives and causing “considerable delay.”
“It is unlikely that the document collection process will be completed without a significant shift in attitude on the part of Canada and those parties who have been reluctant to co-operate,” Mr. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, wrote in the report.
The commission was established in 2008 through the court-approved Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that was negotiated among legal counsel for former students, the churches, the Assembly of First Nations and the federal government.
Jan O’Driscoll, a spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, said the government will carefully review the interim report, but refused to answer any questions on restricting access to records or costs. Mr. O’Driscoll added that the government has already handed over close to a million digitized records to the commission and is preparing to disclose more in the near future.
The commission says, however, that the federal government has from five million to 50 million relevant files on residential schooling, and more than 100,000 boxes of records at the Library and Archives Canada, including some 40,000 boxes from the Aboriginal Affairs Department.
While the report doesn’t name which churches are not co-operating with the commission, the United Church of Canada said it has hired a researcher specifically to sift through its archives on residential schooling.
“The only documents we’re withholding are those with solicitor-client privilege and even then, we are willing to have a discussion with the commission about it,” said Reverend James Scott, general counsel for residential schools. “But most of the documents, close to 95 per cent, are simply not a problem.”
What those church and national archive documents might reveal remains unknown as most organizations don’t have a full inventory yet, Judge Sinclair said. The commission has been provided with “only a very limited portion” of photos and documents in the original lawsuit. But it also needs access to documents on daily operations, such as what the children ate at these schools, for example, to get a “more clear picture.”
Judge Sinclair said the cost for reproducing copies of the archives should be borne by the federal government and the churches involved. If the commission is forced to pick up the tab, the costs could exceed the commission’s $60-million budget.
“We don’t have any authority to force anybody to do anything,” Judge Sinclair said. The commission will now seek advice from the courts on how to ensure compliance, before its mandate expires in 2014.