Skip to main content

Each of us has stories only we can tell, and residential-school survivor Angela Shisheesh has a searing one she wants to preserve for future generations.

The problem is she doesn't own her narrative, at least not according to the federal government's lawyers.

Ms. Shisheesh wants transcripts of the testimony she provided in a groundbreaking lawsuit against the notorious St. Anne's Residential School sent to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.

The government's view is she first needs permission not only from Ottawa, but also from the Catholic Church.

On Wednesday, Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett waived all claims over a sizable swath of documents from the suit – but not all of them – and urged the Church to do likewise.

Ms. Bennett's openness is better than nothing, but the problem is that Ms. Shisheesh should have to ask at all. It is frankly repulsive that Ottawa and the clergy can continue to exercise control over the memories, lives and wishes of residential-school survivors.

The government's position involves questions of standing and privilege, and may well be correct as a matter of law. But it is also deeply objectionable morally, in that it subjects a victim of abuse to the whims of her abusers.

More than that, the case provides a neat encapsulation of a central problem in achieving reconciliation between our national government and Indigenous people. While aboriginals attempt to regain some level of agency and prevent the erasure of painful experience and history, Ottawa is busy arguing narrow points of law and suing abuse victim for court costs.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is committed to bringing closure to "a dark and painful chapter of our history."

For that to happen, Ottawa must break its lengthy and vexing pattern of litigiousness when it comes to residential-school survivors. It would be a concrete way for government to show Indigenous stories of suffering, such as Ms. Shisheesh's, the respect they deserve.