Residential schools: calls for re-examination of abuse files

Nabil Anas

Global Courant


Geraldine Shingoose was shocked when she opened a report exploring what needed to be done to protect potential unmarked grave sites at former residential schools for Indigenous children.

Of the thousands of former students who have described the beatings they suffered to a juror who must determine their eligibility for compensation under the historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, only about 30 have attempted to file copies of their words.

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Shingoose – a native elder and survivor of a residential school – belongs to that small group. She said she is heartbroken at the thought that thousands of records will be destroyed within five years unless more survivors also ask for preservation, an option she fears most are not even aware of.

“That’s history,” she said in a recent interview.

“Those are sacred stories.”

The debate over the future of these records has gained momentum since more First Nations began seeking answers about what happened to the children who died and disappeared from residential schools.

Kimberly Murray says she started thinking about them after the Tk’emlups at Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia announced in May 2021 that ground radar had detected 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

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The finding shocked millions, despite residential school survivors describing such places for decades.

“I’ve always thought that one last look should be taken at the records specific to the burials,” said Murray, who previously served as executive director of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent five years researching the residential school system.

The files in question are the product of what was known as the Independent Assessment Process, the protocol that allowed survivors to access compensation for abuse they suffered as a child.

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It was part of the negotiated settlement between the federal government, church entities, and national indigenous groups. Under the agreement, survivors could file claims about the sexual and physical abuse they endured at publicly funded, church-run institutions, as well as “any other tort” committed by former staff and other students.

From the time the settlement was approved in 2007 to 2012, just over 38,000 claims were filed, most of which were resolved through confidential, closed-door hearings. In total, federal statistics show that $3.1 billion has been disbursed.

Shingoose recalls being questioned by the juror and a federal government representative about the details of the physical and sexual abuse she endured at Muscowequan Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, where she attended for nine years.

She left the experience traumatized again, she said, describing it as a “really, really horrible process.”

In 2014, the question of what to do with those transcripts and supporting documents landed at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

On the one hand, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation – the archive created to store the records – along with the federal government said they should be preserved. The chief arbitrator of the compensation process and 24 entities of the Catholic Church argued that they should be overturned.

The Assembly of First Nations supported the latter position. Phil Fontaine, the former head of the advocacy group that helped negotiate the settlement, filed an affidavit outlining his desire to destroy the records unless a survivor agreed to have them archived.

He used his own story as an example. As regional head in Manitoba in 1990, Fontaine became one of the first leaders to speak publicly about the sexual abuse he suffered at the former Fort Alexander Indian Residential School – but in all the time he did so, he never divulged any details.

“This is because I consider my story to be private,” his affidavit read.

While negotiating the settlement, he said he brought up the need to never reveal the names of children who abused other children because of the harm it would do to Indigenous communities.

According to Fontaine’s affidavit, it was eventually agreed that the names of the perpetrators would never be released and that only survivors would have access to their own records.

Shingoose says the transcript of her hearing runs 278 pages and blackens the names of her Catholic-run school, which she and others have likened to “protecting the abuser.”

In the first lawsuit, the 24 Catholic entities argued that those confidentiality provisions caused them to waive rights that would otherwise be granted in a court of law to defend themselves and challenge a survivor’s account.

Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice eventually ordered the records destroyed after giving survivors 15 years to seek copies of their own files. The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the order to destroy them by September 2027.

In its 2017 ruling, the Supreme Court concluded that promising the utmost confidentiality to both complainants and perpetrators was “inevitable” for the compensation process to work.

Perry Bellegarde, the national head of the Assembly of First Nations at the time, hailed the ruling as “good and fair” at the time.

But one area that neither the courts nor the compensation process considered was child deaths and disappearances, says Murray, who now serves as an independent consultant to Ottawa on how Indigenous communities can help search for unmarked graves and retrieve records.

“What would they have said if there was information about possible murders and deaths and burials, if that information had been shared with the court?” said Murray, a member of the Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation.

“What would they have said about that?”

Murray says survivors talk about witnessing deaths and helping dig graves, and thinks the abuse files should be reviewed to see if they include details, such as the names of children who died. She made the call in a progress report released last month, the same report read by Shingoose, which raised concerns about the lack of archived data.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller is overseeing Ottawa’s efforts to archive additional residential school records. A spokeswoman says the minister is open to finding solutions, but underlined that Ottawa must respect the “absolute confidentiality” of the documents, as ordered by the courts.

The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation says it supports Murray’s call for the documents to be re-examined and believes such a process can unfold in a way that preserves privacy.

It currently reports that there are 27 packets of records that survivors have decided to share.

“We understand that sharing can be difficult and traumatic, so at no point do we investigate or ask for their data,” it said in a statement.

“While we hope survivors continue to place their trust in us, it is ultimately a personal decision.”

Murray points the fact that such a small number of survivors have chosen to share their data to a lack of awareness that they can do so, and questions why such information is not more widely disseminated.

“It’s the worst warning program I’ve ever seen.”

Shingoose requested her records in 2019. She provided a copy to the National Archives and kept one for herself for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see, she said.

It is a way to ensure that the most detailed account of her experience as a residential school survivor is not forgotten.

“I wanted to share my truth,” said Shingoose. “I want my story to be shared.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 24, 2023.

If you are a former residential school student in need or affected by the residential school system and need assistance, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s toll-free line at 1-800-721-0066.

Additional mental health support and resources for Indigenous peoples are available here.

Residential schools: calls for re-examination of abuse files

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