The Supreme Court of Canada said Thursday it will not to hear a case of residential school survivors who have fought a years-long battle against Ottawa to release thousands of records.
The group of survivors from St. Anne’s residential school in northern Ontario had looked to the country’s highest court after spending the last decade fighting the federal government to hand over documents.
The Supreme Court did not provide a reason for dismissing the leave to appeal, as is usual.
The survivors say the federal government is in breach of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement because it withheld documentation of abuse when deciding upon their compensation.
The 2006 agreement between the federal government, residential school survivors, the Assembly of First Nations and churches governed what financial recompense survivors would receive.
Documentary evidence was supposed to help determine the payments made to those who suffered physical and sexual abuse while being forced to attend the church-run, government-funded institutions.
St. Anne’s operated in Fort Albany, Ont., until 1976 and is remembered for horrific stories of abuse.
Edmund Metatawabin, a survivor and former chief of Fort Albany First Nation, said children at the school were sexually abused, punished with shocks delivered by electric chairs and forced to eat their own vomit.
In its fillings, the group of St. Anne’s survivors alleges that “there have been significant procedural and jurisdictional gaps exposed in the administration and enforcement of Canada’s mandatory disclosure obligations” to each claimant under the residential schools settlement agreement.
In 2014, about 60 claimants successfully challenged the federal government for not disclosing the transcripts of criminal trials, investigative reports from the Ontario Provincial Police and civil proceedings about child abuse as part of the compensation process.
Those pages detail abuses that took place at St. Anne’s and outline “persons of interest” in the investigations, the survivors’ filings say.
The Ontario Superior Court ordered that the 12,300 pages of records be produced in 2014.
But the materials the government provided were heavily redacted, the survivors say, meaning that it was still impossible to determine fair compensation.
“At its core, this case is about the need to provide access to justice for the survivors,” the court brief reads.
“Claimants may have been denied compensation or undercompensated for their individual child abuse claim due to non-disclosure of evidence by Canada.”
A lawyer for Canada had asked for the leave for appeal to be dismissed. The federal government has maintained that it has met its obligations on document disclosure.
The last appeal by survivors was dismissed by the Ontario Court of Appeal as “moot” in December, since legal arguments were framed around an appeal to the independent review itself and the review had been delivered.
But “fundamental questions remain unanswered,” the survivors’ group said in its brief, in which it urged guidance from the Supreme Court.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the court’s dismissal of the case “heartbreaking.”
“It makes it clear more than ever that the government has a role to play in providing justice for these survivors,” he said outside the House of Commons Thursday.
“They should be meeting with the community as has been requested a number of times. They didn’t want to go to court.”
Charlie Angus, a New Democrat MP representing northern Ontario who has advocated for St. Anne’s survivors, said in a statement that “it is a sad day for justice in Canada that the Supreme Court has opted to trust the word of the government of Canada over the survivors.”
Justice Minster David Lametti said Thursday his government has tried its best to make sure the requested records were available to families.
Marc Miller, the minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, said his door remains open for St. Anne’s survivors who want to discuss the case.
As for next steps, he pointed to a 2021 report prepared by a third party. That report flagged 11 compensation cases from former St. Anne’s students who could be eligible for further payments, based on Ottawa not having initially disclosed police documents about abuses suffered.
Miller said the federal government has completed its internal review and will now look to a court monitor to review the cases.
“We have to just be very careful with expectations because they can run high and we have to let the adjudicator be nominated first and foremost.”