“How do we collectively honor the legacy of residential schools for the seven generations passed, and the seven generations to come, while providing for the needs of survivors today?” #StandForTruth
For more than a century, the Government of Canada, often in partnership with the country’s major religious bodies, sought to “civilize”, Christianize and assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society through the mandatory enrollment of Indigenous children in the Residential School System. Over 130 years, nearly 140 residential schools were part of this federally funded system, resulting in more than 150,000 students passing through the schools and innumerable human rights abuses against the rights of Indigenous children, families and communities.
In 2007, survivors of residential schools reached the historical Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) with the Government of Canada and churches. Among other things, the IRSSA established the Independent Assessment Process known as the “IAP”. The IAP process provided a second level of compensation to former residential school students who were victims of serious physical and sexual abuse.
As of 2017, the IAP has collected and produced statements and evidence relating to the experiences of 38,096 residential school survivors. This represents the largest collection of first-hand accounts about the experience of residential schools. By contrast, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission received just over 6,750 statements from survivors of residential schools, members of their families, and others who wished to share their knowledge of the residential school system.
Participants in the IAP were supposed to have been provided an informed choice around whether they wished to preserve or destroy their personal IAP documents after the process came to an end. However, this choice was never given in a meaningful, timely or supported way.
In 2013, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Chief Adjudicator of the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat each brought a Request for Directions to the Ontario Court, resulting in the development of a notification program to survivors whereby survivors were given the opportunity to “opt-in” to archive their own IAP documents with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NTRC). If survivors did not make contact with the NCTR, all records would be permanently destroyed after 15 years. The Court of Appeal upheld this decision in 2016.
The decision has been appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, and will be heard on May 25th, 2017. The Coalition has been granted leave to participate as an intervener in the case.
The Coalition is motivated to act by several factors, including the inadequacy of the current program; a lack of consideration in previous rulings for the intergenerational trauma of residential schools; and a lack of consideration for Indigenous laws in previous rulings.
PROGRAM INADEQUACY: The notification program is problematic on numerous fronts. It poses a significant risk of re-traumatizing survivors who, once again, would be pushed to revisit horrific residential school abuses. It would require immense resources to track down and provide the appropriate legal, cultural and personal supports to each survivor in the process of exercising the right to archive their records. Many survivors who participated in the IAP have already passed away. As such, tens of thousands of documents containing critical firsthand accounts of residential schools stand to be lost forever.
It is important to remember that how limited the residential school record already is. Systematic destruction of documentation was built into the residential school system, thereby preventing full accountability to the complete truth and extent of residential school trauma. In the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Final Report itself:
“The number of students who died at Canada’s residential schools is not likely ever to be known in full. The most serious gap in information arises from the incompleteness of the documentary record. Many records simply have been destroyed.”
BREAKING THE CYCLE OF INTERGENERATIONAL TRAUMA: The intergenerational effects of trauma on individuals, families and communities has been well documented. Personal trauma endured by survivors resonates throughout their lives, impacting the physical, mental and spiritual health of families and communities as a whole.
Given the enormous personal effects of trauma of survivors, as well as the massive displacement of Indigenous children from their families, intergenerational survivors often rely on second-hand accounts of residential schools (including archival and historical records) to understand why their communities have and continued to experience the collective trauma that they have.
We share a responsibility to ensure current and future intergenerational survivors can access specific knowledge about what led to their broken communities, fragmented families and loss of language and culture. In the same way that future generations have the right to clean air and water, we believe that future generations have the right to know their historical record through the content of these documents.
THE ROLE OF INDIGENOUS LAW: The IAP records were not gathered in ways consistent with the laws governing the people whose stories were shared. The current proposal for managing the IAP records does not take into account the place of Indigenous laws, which are rich, textured, and full of space to hold differences of opinion.
It doesn't just matter what the Supreme Court rules in regard to management of IAP records - how it reaches that decision matters as well. Canada has a long history of making decisions about Indigenous, Metis and Inuit peoples, rather than with Indigenous, Metis and Inuit peoples. The Coalition hopes the Supreme Court will break from this pattern by making space for the questions to be reframed so that Indigenous Legal Orders have time to be drawn into the decision-making.