The federal government agreed Wednesday to turn over thousands of police documents that survivors of a notorious First Nations residential school say are crucial to their compensation claims.
A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the government would comply with a Tuesday ruling by an Ontario Superior Court judge that ordered it to hand over the documents in its possession.
"We are pleased that the court clarified we can disclose St. Anne's Residential School documents, and, now that we have the court's permission, we will do so," Erica Meekes said in an e-mail.
Survivors of the Northern Ontario school had taken the federal government to court over access to thousands of documents from a provincial police investigation in the 1990s.
The police found evidence of horrific abuse – including the use of an electrified chair – against the aboriginal students.
The federal government had argued it lacked the authority to turn over the documents because it received them from police on the condition they would not be passed on to anyone.
But Justice Paul Perell of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that the federal government must surrender the material.
"Canada has too narrowly interpreted its disclosure obligations," Perell wrote in his decision.
"I do not need to decide whether Canada did this in bad faith, and I rather assume that its officials mistakenly misconstrued their obligations and misread the scope of their obligations.
"That said, in my opinion, there has been non-compliance and Canada can and must do more in producing documents about the events at St. Anne's."
Hundreds of aboriginal children from remote James Bay communities were sent to the school between 1904 and 1976.
Several adults were convicted in the 1990s after an intensive investigation into claims of abuses at the school, which included children being placed on an electrified chair and jolted with shocks.
To settle a class-action suit arising out of the residential-school system, the federal government apologized and set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the abuses.
As part of that, an independent assessment process was created to deal with compensation claims.
Lawyer Fay Brunning, who represents some St. Anne's survivors, scoffed at the government's response. She said the government should have handed over the documents at the beginning of the assessment process.
"It's a spin, because they should have done this six years ago," Brunning said in an interview.
"They should have had their questions answered six years ago."
Julian Falconer, a lawyer with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the government's decision to surrender the documents confirms Perell's approach was "both right in law and did right by First Nations."
"It's certainly a relief that no further resources are going to have to be expended on getting justice for these claimant survivors and ensuring that the history is protected," he said. "Of course, the larger concern remains why all of this was necessary in the first place."