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The federal government will hand over thousands of previously undisclosed residential school documents to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

In an interview, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said the government has come to the conclusion that continuing to withhold the documents is a breach of Ottawa’s “moral duty” to survivors of the schools.

The federal government has faced increased political pressure to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples since earlier this year, when several First Nations announced that they had located unmarked graves near the sites of former residential schools.

Ottawa has released other documents containing information on residential schools to the Winnipeg-based NCTR in the past. Mr. Miller said the government believes those prior releases fulfilled its legal duties, but that it now feels obligated to go further. This latest disclosure will amount to about 12,000 pages.

The NCTR, which holds the country’s largest collection of residential school materials, works to educate Canadians about how First Nations, Inuit and Métis students were forced to attend the government-funded, church-run institutions, where widespread abuse occurred.

Mr. Miller said the government had not previously disclosed these records because of third-party obligations to the Catholic institutions, including Sisters of Saint Anne and Sisters of Providence. Two other institutions that had influence over the records are now defunct.

According to Mr. Miller, the government plans to inform the surviving institutions that the document release is taking place. He estimated that the handover process would take about 30 to 45 days.

When asked how the government overcame the legal hurdles to releasing the documents, Mr. Miller replied: “We haven’t.”

He said he has made the Conference of Catholic Bishops aware that Ottawa has an obligation to survivors and that the federal government cannot be the “sole custodian” of the information.

“I’m not going to assume that there is necessarily an adversarial position right now,” he said. “We need to work together with those Catholic institutions to achieve that closure for survivors.”

Ottawa intends to sign a memorandum of understanding with the NCTR on the document release, he added.

In a statement, the NCTR said it welcomed the announcement from Mr. Miller.

The centre called the decision a “significant moment” for survivors and Canada and a “major step towards accountability and a stronger understanding of the legacy of residential schools.”

The statement added that the NCTR doesn’t know the full extent of the records and will need time to identify and catalogue them. Once the records are organized, the centre intends to make them available to residential school survivors, as well as their families and communities. The files are a mix of government and Catholic Church documents, the NCTR said.

On Oct. 19, the NCTR released a strongly worded statement after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, where he apologized to the chief for not accepting an invitation to spend the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with the community. Mr. Trudeau was instead in Tofino, B.C., on vacation with his family on that day – a decision he has since said was a mistake.

The statement said the Prime Minister had incorrectly claimed that the government had “handed all records on residential schools” over to the NCTR. The centre noted that it hadn’t received information on some schools, and that its information on others was incomplete.

The centre also said it was still waiting for the government to provide final versions of school narratives and supporting documents used in the Independent Assessment Process (IAP). The IAP was established to resolve claims of serious physical, sexual or emotional abuse suffered at residential schools.

Mr. Miller said “absolute confidentiality” applies to documents related to the IAP because of a Supreme Court of Canada decision that must be respected. He said he will work with Justice Minister David Lametti, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal on a way for third parties to access this information.

He said he could not say how long this process might take, because it will require a review of internal procedures and processes.

The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society, toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.

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