Watching the Prime Minister’s apology on Monday, on the grounds of one of the largest residential schools in western Canada, was heartbreaking and infuriating. It looked as if Justin Trudeau wanted to be anywhere other than where he was – beside Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir, as well as Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald and other B.C. Indigenous leaders.
The Kukpi7 was smiling, but she also seemed frustrated and angry, her words bittersweet. And who could blame her? Tk’emlúps had previously sent two invitations to the PMO, inviting Mr. Trudeau there for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The PMO said he could not attend; it turned out the Prime Minister was taking a vacation in Tofino, B.C.
This, after the First Nation held the world’s attention in May, when preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating survey said that more than 200 children’s remains were buried on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School. All thinking and feeling people turned their eyes to a horrific truth of Canada’s genocide – one kept hidden from the public, history books and the people, unless you and your family lived it. Indigenous leaders have been calling ever since for Ottawa and the Catholic Church to turn over every record they have – everything from shopping invoices to attendance records to provincial death records – to Tk’emlúps and all the Nations taking care of the spirits of thousands of children.
But that sheepish visit from the Prime Minister also exposed what appears to be a standoff in truth-telling between Indigenous leaders and the federal government.
On Monday, Mr. Trudeau told reporters that Canada has, “to my understanding, turned over all of those records, including full or partial attendance records to the KIRS, dating back to the 1880s …”
Many in the national media dutifully reported this. But here is the gulf, which is as big as the sea: there are documents that still haven’t been handed over.
According to Donald Worme, the former counsel for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the founding member of the Indigenous Bar Association, the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement – which established the TRC – dictated that all records would be released to the commission. Despite the federal government being a party to IRSSA, however, the records from the Independent Assessment Process – which collected survivors’ stories to provide access to compensation around alleged abuse in residential schools – have not been released.
Worse, those documents are now at risk. In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the 38,000 accounts would be retained for 15 years, during which time those survivors could consent to have their records preserved; any others, however, would be destroyed, out of concern around survivors’ consent and privacy. Explicit consent on this matter is necessary, but it is for the greater good that all IAP documents are held on to by the NCTR. Otherwise, how can our people retain knowledge sovereignty? And, as Mr. Worme says: “Where in the civilized world do historical records get destroyed?”
The non-political National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation called for the same thing this week: “At present, we are still waiting for Canada to provide the final versions of school narratives and supporting documents used in the Independent Assessment Process to the NCTR.”
But even beyond these complicated records, “various Library and Archives Canada quality records and records from provincial governments, most of whom have not yet produced vital statistics, including death certificates for children lost at schools or coroners’ reports” are still missing, according to the NCTR’s release. It is also still waiting for access to Indian Hospital records, federal health records and day school records.
With all due respect, Mr. Prime Minister: You must open your ears, listen, then act.
For the good of this country, break down the silos between governments and ministries and either appoint a commissioner right now who has the legal and moral authority to dig up every record possible – or do it yourself.
Demand that all provinces and bureaucracies fall in line. Demand that of every bureaucrat at every ministry – including at provincial registrar offices, which may be holding thousands of death certificates that need to be digitized for the NCTR.
Kukpi7 Casimir demanded all this publicly back in July, with Mr. Worme sitting beside her. Other Indigenous leaders have also called for this many times over, including the TRC, which made its report nearly six years ago.
How much more serious could First Nations possibly get about this issue?
Our communities, leaders and survivors are not making this up. Every ministry under the federal government and all the provinces and territories should stop what they are doing and start looking. Our children and families have already waited too long.
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