Residential-school records jeopardized by lack of co-operation: auditor

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail

Commissioners Marie Wilson, Justice Murray Sinclair and Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission release their interim report during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday February 24, 2012.

(DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A lack of co-operation on the part of the government is jeopardizing its promise to record and preserve the sad history of abuse that took place behind the walls of Canada’s aboriginal residential schools, the Auditor-General has found.

In a report released Tuesday, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson says his office has found that the Aboriginal Affairs department and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body established to record the legacy of the church-run schools, have not been able to agree on the most basic of things.

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Under a settlement agreement signed by the government, the churches and the school survivors in 2006, government departments were to provide the commission with millions of documents related to the schools that were generated over the more than 100 years they were in operation.

The aim is to create a historical record of the schools where tens of thousands of former residents say they suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

But, while the Aboriginal Affairs department has handed over 3.5 million documents, millions more have yet to be located, digitized and provided to the Commission.

The Auditor-General says that is due, at least in part, to the fact that the department and the Commission have been unable to co-operate and agree on a definition of the relevant documents.

“Consequently,” Mr. Ferguson says in his report, “they were unable to define the scope of the work to be done so that Canada would meet its obligation and the Commission would fulfill its mandate.”

The Commission obtained a court ruling last year that said the government is obligated to find the records, organize them, and hand them over.

And the government continues to collect and digitize the documents, says the Auditor-General.

While both the government and the Commission bear responsibility for the lack of co-operation, the government had far more resources at its disposal to get problems resolved, said Mr. Ferguson.

“Right from the very beginning,” he said, “the two parties really didn’t get together, determine what all of the priorities were going to be and how they were going to achieve really what was a very big task.”

The major concern now is whether the documents can be gathered in the 15 months remaining in the commission’s mandate, said Mr. Ferguson.

“The government and the commission need to step back,” he said, “they need to determine what’s been achieved to this date, what else needs to be achieved, so that, at the end of the day, the historical record is prepared in a way such that it was originally intended to be.”

Justice Murrary Sinclair, who chairs the Commission, said this month that large numbers of records have yet to flow his way.

And the Auditor-General says “it is not possible to assess whether the Commission has obtained or will obtain from Canada all the relevant documents it reasonably requires for the historical record, what remains to be done, how long this will take, or what resources are needed to accomplish this undertaking.”

The Commission has determined that, once the documents have been processed, they will be housed at a national research centre at the University of Manitoba.

But the Auditor-General found there is no plan to resolve the issues around that transfer, including assurances that the records will comply with federal privacy laws.

Bernard Valcourt, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, said in a statement that there would be better co-operation going forward.

“We agree with the Auditor General that Canada and the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) can work more closely together to ensure the objectives of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement are met,” said Mr. Valcourt. “ And we are working jointly with the Commission to develop a project plan to fulfill document disclosure requirements.”

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