A class picture from St. Paul's Indian Industrial School in Middlechurch, Manitoba. via WikiCommons.
In the early 1990s an affiliation of Cochrane, Kapuskasing, and James Bay’s OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) detectives were assigned to investigate one of the largest claims of sexual and physical abuse against children in Canadian history. The testimony they amassed by talking to hundreds of survivors of St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany Ontario was horrifying. The investigation provided 7,000 pages of stories that wouldn’t be out of place in memoirs of concentration camp survivors, or of individuals trapped in a country where ethnic cleansing is a government policy.
The accounts of physical and sexual abuse are brutal and numerous—hetero and homosexual child rape, children being beaten with strops and rudimentary whips, forced ingestion of noxious substances (rotten porridge that children would throw up and then be forced to eat), sexual fondling, forced masturbation… the list goes on and on. But one of the most appalling and debasing examples of the indignity and the abuse suffered by children at St. Anne’s is that of being strapped down and tortured in a homemade electric chair—sometimes as a form of punishment—but other times just as a form of amusement for the missionaries, who, while committing these acts, were supposedly the ones “civilizing” the “Indians.”
Edmund Metatawabin was the chief of the Fort Albany First Nation in the 1990s, and the man who first brought these allegations to the attention of the OPP. Both he and his peers had been strapped down in the electric chair and he recalled the experiences as such: “Small boys used to have their legs flying in front of them… the sight of a child being electrocuted and their legs flying out in front was a funny sight for the missionaries and they’d all be laughing… the cranking of the machine would be longer and harder. Now you’re inflicted with real pain. Some of them passed out.”
In 1997, the OPP concluded its investigation and seven former employees of St. Anne’s were charged and convicted of a variety of assaults. The victims were never compensated, and the 7,000 pages of investigative evidence collected by the OPP was locked away somewhere in Orillia. Now, the victims are seeking compensation, and the federal government—who has subsequently become the defendant in a case involving the sexual abuse and torture of children by an electric chair—is attempting to keep those 7,000 documents from ever seeing the light of day, thus preventing the possibility of any recompense. The government is citing “privacy reasons” for their lack of transparency.
I corresponded with Fay Brunning, an Ottawa-based lawyer who is representing the victims of St. Anne’s in their compensation claims.
“In refugee claims in Canada,” says Fay, “the Federal Government accepts that electric shock is a form of torture. It was torture, according to many of my clients, to be strapped into that chair and electrocuted.”
Fay has been in contact with Detective Constable Greg Delguidice, an OPP officer who worked tirelessly on this case throughout the 90s, and who, in a ‘Will Say’ document (meaning it describes what Delguidice will say in court) Fay provided to me, Delguidice’s testimony corroborates the disturbing claims of the St. Anne’s survivors. But it also indicates that the federal government is not disclosing the most crucial evidence of abuse at the school: “None of this evidence is disclosed in the Federal Government disclosure package about St. Anne’s, which is supposed to reveal all the documents about sexual or physical abuse at the school while it operated.”
I called up Delguidice directly, at his office in Kapuskasing, to see if he’d be willing to provide a comment or perspective on the case, but he respectfully declined, saying it’s “in the middle of a civil process right now” and that their “corporate communications is dealing with the matter.”
These documents that the government is withholding are vitally important to the process, because without some form of official record, the claims of abuse by these victims are easily dismissed as being based solely on abstract words and memories. As Fay Brunning told me, “I take the position that the Federal Government should admit liability to those former students who were electrocuted… Former students should not have to go in, on their own, and each of them convince the adjudicator there was an electric chair. Furthermore, there should be no doubt that compensation should be granted to those people who were electrocuted.”
Seeing as the government is the defendant in this claims case, it seems totally bogus that they should have any legal say on what evidence may or may not be presented. “The fact is,” says Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay, “that the federal government is the defendant in the case. So, do we allow perps in any kind of sexual rape case to decide what kind of evidence comes forth? No.”
I called up Charlie to get some civil and political perspective on just why the government feels that it’s worth still trying to hide these thousands of documents of abuse evidence that are, at this point, essentially common knowledge in northern Ontario. Although not surprisingly—for an outspoken NDP critic of Aboriginal Affairs and Justice (who also hates Twitter)—he was candid on the matter, which was a refreshing departure from our often precious and handle-with-kid-gloves members of Parliament. In his words:
“They’re doing a lot of weaseling—legal weasel stuff that they always do with First Nations—to have the federal government not bother to tell these survivors when they’re coming in and having to prove their case, that, ‘yeah, we know where the evidence is, we’re just not going to provide it’"
"This is a government that talks about standing up for the victim all the time and they’re going to be tough on criminals. Well, are they telling us that there’s two classes of victims in this country? Native and non-Native? And that Native victims are just going to have to make do with less, and have their rights interfered with—have evidence of sexual torture and abuse of children suppressed? What, to save some dollars? I find that absolutely appalling. That they knew this, that they knew these documents were there and they made no evidence to supply them is mind boggling.”
From there, I asked Charlie if he thought the government could redeem themselves—if they could turn this around and make good to the victims of St. Anne’s, on their Residential School apology, and on the commitment they made to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“They can. The timing is important. They have to supply these documents soon. I know that at the provincial level we have people who are willing to help, we know the OPP are willing to help. People want justice done. Who would side with covering up or denying child victims of sexual and physical torture? It takes a special level of hardened depravity to want that. So, I expect this Justice Minister is going to do the right thing and they will turn those documents over. I’m sorry, They’ve been outed. The light’s shining on them. It’s time to do right, whether they want to or not. We’ve got to drag them into the daylight kicking and screaming, but we want justice.“
To not immediately release these documents shows that the current government was dishonest in their apology that First Nations groups say yielded no significant change for their way of life in Canada. Obviously it was a hollow gesture. And now, to deny the claims and withhold evidence of what amounts to torture from child survivors is, well, fucked up. Stephen Harper relished the moment to deliver a historical apology. Now it’s time to actually do something, and make things better for Canada’s Native victims.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @ddner