Former inmates of an Indian residential school where children were subjected to horrific abuse, including torture in an electric chair, say the federal government is deliberately withholding documents that would prove their tales of torment and bolster their bid for compensation.
The former students say they were astounded to learn this month that the investigative files they have been asking Ottawa to get from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) have been in federal hands since 2003.
Hundreds of First Nations people who were at the St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., have applied for compensation under the Independent Assessment Process, an out-of-court method of resolving claims of sexual and serious physical abuse at the schools.
They say the documents, created during a five-year OPP investigation that resulted in the conviction of five former employees of St. Anne's, would spare them from having to prove what they endured. The investigation uncovered evidence that included the fact that a home-made electric chair was used on children as young as six years old.
Under the terms of the IAP, Ottawa is required to search for and report any information about former employees of the schools who are named in survivors' claims. But in the case of St. Anne's, the government did not share the OPP documents or acknowledge they had copies during the first six years of the process.
Federal officials told the IAP panel there were "no known incidents found in documents regarding sexual abuse at Fort Albany IRS."
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said in a letter last July, after the school survivors had found out about the documents but believed the OPP had the only copies, that federal officials are not obligated to "seek out the investigative files of police forces."
The two sides will ask an Ontario Superior Court justice in December to determine how far the government must go to provide such files.
Lawyers for the survivors learned this month that the government got the documents 10 years ago, when it was being sued by 152 former students.
Justice Department lawyer Haniya Sheikh said in an affidavit of June, 2003, that it would be "unfair" to allow trial to proceed unless the government had access to the OPP file. A judge ordered that the government could "inspect and copy" it.
Edmund Metatawabin, a former chief of Fort Albany, said in a telephone interview that he was surprised to learn the government had the documents. He said it calls into question Prime Minister Stephen Harper 2008 apology to the survivors of residential schools.
"I remember the elders saying the words came out of his mouth but the eyes told a different story," Mr. Metatawabin said.
Stan Louttit, the Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, which encompasses the First Nations around James Bay, including Fort Albany, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that it is very important for the survivors to have proof of what they endured.
Erica Meekes, a spokeswoman for Mr. Valcourt, said the government takes its obligations under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement seriously. "In order to bring clarity to the issue," Ms. Meekes said, "the minister has already sought direction from the Ontario Superior Court on whether the department can hand over these documents that would potentially breach privacy laws."
The government has argued that the documents contain private information that was given without intent or approval for its use or release.
Charlie Angus, the New Democrat MP who represents the riding that includes Fort Albany, said it is "appalling" that the government would stonewall the victims of abuse about police files that would corroborate their claims after arguing 10 years ago it would be "unfair" to proceed in a trial if it did not have access to them.
"They have really poisoned the process here, Mr. Angus said, "and I don't see how they can fix this at this point unless there is some kind of dramatic move."