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The Canadian Government Was Forced to Release Documents About Child Abuse

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has ruled the federal government must release thousands of police documents concerning the case of six students who were "disciplined" in an electric chair at St. Anne’s residential school.

by Dave Dean
Jan 21 2014, 7:00pm

A school project put together by one of the survivors of the St. Anne's Residential School.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has ruled that the Canadian Federal Government has to disclose thousands of police documents concerning the torture of native children at St. Anne’s residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario. The infamous school—where children as young as six were disciplined in an electric chair—is, at least to this date, perhaps the most egregious example of the abuses inflicted upon children who were forced into the residential school system. The government has been withholding transcripts and documents related to a police investigation that took place when group of former students jointly filed their complaints in the early 90s. The Harper government and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Vaillancourt has cited “privacy concerns” as reason not to produce the documents, although it appears they may simply want to avoid the possibility of having to pay any compensation to the aging survivors. 

In his ruling last Tuesday, Justice Paul Perell ripped into the government for their shrewd and insensitive treatment of abuse victims, showing once again that they're unwilling to comply with their obligations in regards to land treaties or reconcile with any spirit of openness, authenticity, or healing. 

“It is to the disgrace and shame of the religious organizations and Canada, that the children who attended Indian Residential Schools were the victims of brutal mistreatment,” writes Justice Perell in his decision. “Based on its unduly narrow interpretation of its obligations, Canada has not adequately complied with its disclosure obligations with respect to the St. Anne’s narrative… If truth and reconciliation is to be achieved, if it is to be a genuine expression of Canada’s request for forgiveness for failing our aboriginal people so profoundly, the justice of the system for the compensation for the victims must be protected.”

Fay Brunning has been representing former students of St. Anne’s. She believes Justice Perell’s decision to be a landmark. It is one that “comes down hard” on the government’s lack of cooperation while opening the right doors for other victims to move forward.

“I feel like he came down with a real cornerstone decision here for us that completely reinforces the terms of this agreement and puts this thing back on the rails… All their arguments he found were misdirected, as were all the excuses they tried to come up with as to why they buried these documents… So he’s really come down and established that yes, the court’s got jurisdiction, yes it’s going to supervise, yes, if people have problems you can come to the court.”

Last week I called Fay to get a better sense of what’s next for the victims of the St. Anne’s Residential School.

VICE: First of all, congratulations on the ruling. Have you spoken with any of the victims? How are they feeling about it?
Fay Brunning: Oh, yeah, I’ve got lots of emails. They’re so relieved, because they felt it was important that the truth be brought forward. There have been 22, 23 years of history of trying to bring forward the pervasive and widespread abuse at St. Anne’s to the justice system. It started in 1992; they had a health conference in St. Albany that led to going to the police. So overall, people are very relieved and very proud to have participated. It took a lot of courage for me to say to people, "Can you give me your evidence? Will you give me your evidence? Will you help me by giving me your case to take it forward before the judge to show the judge why this makes a difference?"

It’s really important that firstly, Canada understands what they went through, but secondly, that they end up realizing that other Canadians are horrified and they verify that what happened to them as children was wrong. And in particular here, that the court has said that their rights have been violated and it was wrong.

Moving forward, what does this mean for survivors of abuse at not just St. Anne’s, but for surviving victims of abuse at residential schools across Canada?
It’s really important because let’s say, in another example, two of the nuns who were convicted at St. Anne’s for physical abuse of children—one of them for forcing children to eat their own vomit—she worked across James Bay in Fort George at the Catholic school there, both the nuns did. So to the same degree that there was non-disclosure about these two convicted nuns at St. Anne’s, well guess what? [There are] ten-to-one odds they abused kids over at the other school, too. So I bet you the perpetrator reports about those two nuns are equally deficient at the other schools they worked at. So then people who went to Fort George and didn’t really understand how bad this woman was or they had no more information, their claims may be impacted and that’s why the judge has left it completely open and said, "If there’s going to have to be re-hearings, I am going to exercise my extraordinary jurisdiction and that’s going to happen."

The government could have asked the court to clarify these matters instead of just hiding the documents and hoping nobody ever revealed it. Overall there’s been non-compliance by the federal government in terms of failing to disclose about St. Anne’s… clearly this is one of the most egregious examples of widespread physical and sexual abuse over all of these children but we don’t know where else it trickles out. For instance, in a Manitoba residential school, there was a supervisor who in 2005 was convicted of sexually abusing a number of boys; well, he had worked at a number of other residential schools, and if the federal government has the transcripts and it has all the information about all these convicted—or even if not convicted but there were full trials, even if you had an acquittal—those contain allegations of sexual and physical abuse against that perpetrator.

Many survivors are now elderly. Do you think one of the reasons that the government wanted to keep this under lock and key is that they were just waiting for these people to die off so they wouldn’t have to deal with it?
Could be. I think they wanted to avoid paying. Can you imagine any Canadian, for example, you go to court and you’re civilly suing somebody for having sexually abused your child and you find out that the perpetrator has been criminally convicted already of having sexually abused another child? And then to try and argue that those transcripts and that conviction is not relevant? I mean, it blows your mind. That's what the federal government has done, they’re arguing that these are completely irrelevant. Really?

That the federal government made it this difficult for justice to be achieved in the first place is in itself an abuse. They are a government that claims to be staunchly against the physical and sexual abuse of children, so why draw out a lengthy court battle deliberately hiding the truth in regards to victims of such abuse? It’s hard not to see a double standard. If this were a group of Anglo-Saxon children who had been raped and electrocuted at a boarding school in the 60s and were seeking compensation, would the government withhold evidence from them?

This government has a one-track-mind when it comes to its relationship with Canada’s aboriginal communities that isn’t based on reconciliation, but purely based on economics. This attitude that shuns healing, forgiveness, and compensation for questionable promises of resource driven prosperity, won’t do them any favours in bridging the necessary divides that may be required for the permission to build pipelines through aboriginal lands.