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An exterior wall of the former residential school, Mohawk Institute, seen scrawled with the message 'Help Me' during an excavation in Brantford, Ont., on Nov. 18, 2017.Michelle Siu/For The Globe and Mail

The independent tribunal that oversees the process for determining how much compensation is paid to people abused at Canada’s Indian Residential Schools is warning former students that documents related to their claims will be destroyed unless they take steps to have them preserved.

The records contain intimate details of the physical, sexual and emotional trauma suffered by more than 38,000 former students, and the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat is launching a website to inform claimants about their range of options.

If those who applied for awards under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement take no action, the Supreme Court said the records must be destroyed 15 years after they were created. An Ontario judge has set a uniform date saying they must all be destroyed in October 2027.

The secretariat website, which is being made public on Monday, tells claimants how they may obtain a copy of the records to keep or to share with others, and how to submit the records to be archived at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, if that is what they wish.

A national outreach program that includes advertising, social media and training of health support workers to alert former students about their options will also be funded by the secretariat.

“It is designed to reach Indigenous people in all regions of Canada so that claimants can make an informed choice about what they want to do with their records,” Dan Shapiro, the chief adjudicator of the independent assessment process, which is managed by the residential schools adjudication secretariat, said in a statement.

The website and the outreach program were developed in co-operation with the Assembly of First Nations, the federal government, lawyers representing former students and the Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. It was also approved by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

The secretariat won a protracted court battle in 2017 with the government of Canada, which had sought to preserve the documents for historical and research purposes.

The government said the identities of the claimants could have been removed from the records to protect their privacy. It argued that the documentary record had to be preserved so no one would forget what happened at the schools, which operated for more than a century in Canada and have been described as an exercise in “cultural genocide” by a commission that investigated their legacy.

But Mr. Shapiro countered that some of the claimants told him they would never have taken part in the Independent Assessment Process without the promise of confidentiality, and they wanted the details of what happened to them at the schools kept secret, even from their families and even after their deaths.

The Assembly of First Nations agreed with Mr. Shapiro, saying that the public archiving of the documents, without the explicit consent of the claimants, would mark another breach of trust for those who were abused as children at the schools.

In the end, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling and said the documents had to be destroyed after 15 years, unless the claimants specifically consented to having them preserved.

Some former students may not know exactly what documents about their claims exist. The secretariat suggests that, in those cases, they obtain a copy of the records before making a decision about whether to have them archived at the Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

The Independent Assessment Process is in its final stages. By the end of December, 99 per cent of all claims had been resolved and the rest were expected to be finalized this year. More than $3-billion has been awarded to former students of the residential schools, with individual awards averaging a little over $90,000 each.

Editor’s note: (Jan. 14, 2019) This story originally said the Independent Assessment documents will start being destroyed this year. In fact they will be kept until October 2027.

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