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Carolyn Bennett asks Catholic groups to allow residential school survivors to have documents outlining abuse made public

Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum comforts Angela Shisheesh, a survivor of abuse at the infamous St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., during a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 15.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government is urging Catholic groups that ran Indian residential schools to allow former students who settled their abuse cases before a compensation deal was signed with school survivors to file their court documents with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Justice Department lawyers say permission from both the government and the Catholic entities is required before abuse survivors who launched court cases before 2006, when the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was struck, can house papers related to their cases at the centre in Winnipeg that is chronicling the schools' tragic legacy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in December the government will waive the privilege it asserts over the records pertaining to the lawsuit launched by Angela Shisheesh for the hardships she endured at the infamous St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., where former students say they were tortured in a makeshift electric chair and forced to eat their own vomit.

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Carolyn Bennett, the Minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, has written a letter that is being sent to the roughly 50 Catholic entities that ran the schools asking them to do the same for everyone in Ms. Shisheesh's situation – essentially requesting that the Church allow more documents detailing the abuse suffered by the students to be made public.

Ms. Shisheesh has a copy of her discovery transcript, and "Canada indicated that it has no objection to Ms. Shisheesh providing a copy of it to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation," Dr. Bennett wrote. "The Government of Canada hopes that the Catholic Church will join in our consent …" she said in her letter.

Rev. Ken Forster of the Oblate Ministries, which ran St. Anne's, said on Monday Ms. Shisheesh would have to contact the Oblates to make the request herself. "I am open to hearing her story and certainly [to] responding to it," he said in a telephone interview.

But Ms. Shisheesh said she does not believe she should have to ask anyone's permission to have her court documents stored at the centre. "Those are my stories," she said at a news conference on Monday. "Why should I ask permission from the Church or the government to release my story to be sent to the place where it is supposed to be?"

Ms. Shisheesh, 72, was the lead plaintiff in a suit involving 156 former students who were physically or sexually abused at St. Anne's. That suit ended in a financial settlement in 2004.

She was surprised to learn this year that documents related to her case had not been filed with the centre alongside those of many other former students of residential schools who received compensation under the IRRSA. She asked the Ontario Superior Court to instruct the government to hand them over and do the same for all the other cases launched before the IRSSA was signed.

Justice Department lawyers said in court documents filed in late November that Ms. Shisheesh was entitled to give the centre her examination for discovery – pretrial oral testimony taken under oath, which she recently acquired from a previous lawyer – but only after she obtained a waiver of privilege from the government and the Catholic Church.

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Ms. Shisheesh is planning to testify at a new compensation hearing for Stella Chapman, a survivor of St. Anne's who was sexually assaulted by another student and whose claim was denied in 2012, when the government withheld documents indicating that staff at the school knew, or should have known, about student-on-student abuse.

The government has since released thousands of police documents relating to abuse at the school and says it will allow a review of the decision in Ms. Chapman's case.

However, Justice Department lawyers are also arguing that Fay Brunning, the lawyer who has worked pro bono for both Ms. Chapman and Ms. Shisheesh, should bear the costs of court proceedings at which she asked for more documents related to Ms. Chapman's case to be released.

In a ruling last week, Justice Paul Perell of the Ontario Superior Court said he expects asking Ms. Brunning to pay the court costs "is really a settling of scores between Canada and Ms. Brunning." He described the confrontational relationship between the government and St. Anne's survivors as a "festering sore of suspicion, animosity, distrust and shared resentment."

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