OTTAWA - The federal government is “obstructing justice” by refusing to hand over unedited documents to former residents of St. Anne’s Residential School, says the NDP and a lawyer for several dozen aboriginal victims of abuse.
Nine months ago, an Ontario court ordered the federal government to hand over all documents that could help corroborate the stories of the school’s survivors, who say the documents will support their compensation claims.
About 12,300 documents — amounting to nearly 40,000 pages — were provided on Aug. 1. But the material, including trial transcripts, witness statements to police, even certificates of conviction, was heavily redacted — “nearly useless” in the words of lawyer Fay Brunning, who represents about 60 of hundreds of former students.
The names of perpetrators, the names of other potential witnesses to abuse — all key information that could help bolster people’s claims — were blacked out, she says.
“The federal government, in its excessive redaction, is blocking out the identity of people who told the police that they saw abuse happen to some of my individual clients,” says Brunning.
“Some of my clients are highly damaged and their testimony alone may not be reliable due to alcoholism, etc., whereas the witness may have more recollection about things such as whether my client was bleeding after a whipping or choking after being forced to eat vomit.”
Hundreds of students attended St. Anne’s between 1904 and 1976 and six former employees were convicted in the 1990s following an OPP investigation.
The Conservative government has set up an independent hearing system to hear individual claims and compensate survivors for their pain. Many claims have already been adjudicated. But for many others, it is an uphill climb.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose constituents include many of those families, has been arguing for access to the documents for more than a year.
In his view, the refusal of federal justice department lawyers to provide the unedited documents to aboriginal survivors of abuse is tantamount to “obstruction of justice.”
Angus fired off an angry letter to Justice Minister Peter MacKay this week saying federal lawyers are violating the spirit if not the letter of the January court order.
He reminded MacKay that Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perrell ruled Ottawa had a specific duty to provide the evidence.
Angus pointed out the hypocrisy of a federal government that cited fairness when it was defending itself against civil claims and acquired the documents in the first place from the Ontario Provincial Police under a 2003 court order.
That order said they should be made available to future plaintiffs, Angus wrote.
“It appears that the Department of Justice’s notion of fairness extends only to the defendants of these crimes (Canadian government officials and Catholic Church personnel), but not to the victims of these crimes (survivors of St. Anne’s).”
Angus told MacKay his officials are undermining the rights of victims, and violating their legal, fiduciary and professional obligations in withholding the unedited documents.
In an email to the Star, MacKay’s press secretary Clarissa Lamb said, “We have received the letter and we will review it.”
Erika Meekes, spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, did not address the concerns about the documents related to St. Anne’s abuse victims’ claims, but responded with general comments about the ongoing issue of documents sought by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A court order has also forced Ottawa to hand over millions of documents to the commission trying to document the nationwide scourge of residential schools.
“Our government takes our obligations under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement seriously and we continue to ensure that the government fulfills its obligations under the agreement,” Meekes said. “That is also why we have disclosed over 4.2 million documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“Our government has provided the TRC with $1.8M to conduct research at Library and Archives Canada using its existing contract with an outside research firm. This money is an immediate measure to ensure high priority documents keep flowing to the TRC.”
In April, Angus received two of the key trial transcripts in unredacted form.
The transcripts, from defendants were part of a partial package of records the federal government sent him in response to an Access to Information request he had made “even though I had made no request to see the court documents.”
Brunning had to go back to court to get an interlocutory order to get those same unredacted transcripts — recently provided to her. She is aghast. “You can’t retroactively make public documents private,” she says.
Angus and Brunning say it’s been an unbelievably long slog. Ottawa initially told the Independent Assessment Process — which is adjudicating the abuse claims of aboriginal survivors — “such evidence did not exist.” No one is arguing that the names of other abuse victims be made public, but Brunning says the material should be provided to the hearings of the IAP.
For Angus, the MP for Timmins-James Bay, it’s inexplicable.
“I’m not kidding — when this residential school apology was read out (in 2008) people in my riding cried for two days. They couldn’t believe there was finally going to be justice.
“A lot still weren’t going to come forward because they didn’t trust it. How do I tell them in Canada in the 21st century they have a right to justice when they’ve been lied to, evidence has been suppressed. This process has completely been adversarial against them, and it’s being done by the Justice Department of Canada.
“I really don’t know what to say to the people who came forward. They’re suffering right now, it’s still a black shadow, what happened.”
“I can’t believe it’s happening in this country.”