A monumental unanimous decision on Friday from the Supreme Court of Canada states that records of horrific abuses in the nation’s baneful Indigenous residential schools must be kept confidential — and, in fact, should be destroyed.
In effect, however, the Canadian court seemed to rule in favor of erasing genocide — including the kidnapping and detention of thousands upon thousands of Indigenous and First Nations Peoples — entirely from the books.
Indigenous claimants against the government — of whom there are 38,000, if not far more — will have access to their files, and ability to request their preservation, for just 15 more years. After that, all documentation will be destroyed — erased.
“While this order may be inconsistent with the wishes of deceased claimants who were never given the option to preserve their records, the destruction of records that some claimants would have preferred to have preserved works a lesser injustice than the disclosure of records that most expected never to be shared,” the ruling states.
Proposals from the government to delete any identifying details and remove all information too personal as to be identifying did not satisfy the top court’s contention the accounts would be too fraught to divulge publicly.
But this latest development in Canada’s profound abuse of human rights glosses over the inimical history of Indigenous residential schools. Worse, the ruling does so under the premise of protecting victims’ identities — while, in actuality, it appears intended to guard from public perusal the names of the many abusers and perpetrators.
Canada’s 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, CBC notes, was intended “to promote healing, education, truth and reconciliation, and commemoration by, in part, financially compensating former students” — former students who had no choice but to attend the Christian-centric, government-funded assimilation schools: Attendance was mandatory for all Indigenous children.
Per the agreement, CBC explains,
“There were two types of compensation; one based on the amount of time spent at the schools ($10,000 for the first year and $3,000 for each year after) and a second based on abuse that resulted in serious psychological consequences, claimed through the independent assessment process.
“Applications required survivors to provide ‘the most private and most intimate personal information’ and each person attending the hearing was required to sign a confidentiality agreement.”
Interestingly, the Government of Canada had not sought to destroy the tens of thousands of accounts of the horrors of forced cultural assimilation and worse — it was the highest court’s feeling the families of victims or of deceased victims would take issue with raw details. Indeed, the aforementioned confidentiality decree comprised the heft of the court’s reasoning.
“As a matter of contractual interpretation, destruction is what the parties had bargained for,” the court wrote of the accounts. “The independent assessment process was intended to be a confidential process, and both claimants and alleged perpetrators had relied on that assurance of confidentiality in deciding to participate.”
In contrast, the government pursued the retention of those records with Library and Archives Canada, with Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett lamenting she was “very disappointed” with the ruling.
An understandable sentiment from the perspective of atonement and recognition on the part of the Canadian government for unspeakable crimes committed against peoples whose only transgression was the geographical happenstance of their ancestral lands. Although tone has plainly shifted, personal accounts of what happened behind the doors of these ‘residential schools’ occasionally freeze the public spotlight — despite the court’s apparent moralism in citing victims’ interests.
“I was thrown into a cold shower every night, sometimes after being raped,” then-fifty-year-old Sue Caribou — who suffers chronic, annual pneumonia as a tangible reminder of the abuse — matter-of-factly told the Guardian in June 2015.
At the time, First Nations and Indigenous Peoples had just received vindication — the government of Canada conceded the abominable assimilation program, in essence, disguised as legitimate education had effected nothing less than genocide.
“Canada clearly participated in a period of cultural genocide,” Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, declared without condition to thunderous applause and palpable emotion from the audience of survivors and supporters in Ottawa, as the Guardian reported then.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Catholic Church previously offered apologies for the schools’ abhorrent treatment, in 2008 and 2009, respectively — yet, neither they nor any officials had ever conceded the transgressions amounted to genocide.
“It feels like our story is validated at last and is out there for the world to see,” Cindy Tom-Lindley, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivor Society in British Columbia, explained after the historic declaration. “We were too scared as children to speak out. So to give our testimonies to the commission was liberating and emotional.”
That sentiment was shared by many Indigenous women and men who sought both recognition from the government of inexcusable abuse and a platform from which to recount the horrors without fear of retribution — or, possibly worse, disbelief.
But the platform and rhetoric of apology represented mere formalities for some, including Perry Bellegarde, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 2015, who admonished,
“If Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools is not followed by actions, it will prove to be meaningless.”
In the ensuing period, Canada began the process of monetary compensation as described earlier in this article. Whether or not the program and its conditional hush agreement could ever reckon the unspeakable terror occurring for decades upon decades unchecked must be the decision of each victim.
“I didn’t learn anything at the Guy Hill school except the ‘Our Father’ prayer and the national anthem,” opined Caribou, suggesting the noun, school, should be left open to interpretation. “My children taught me how to read and write. I’ve been a housekeeper all my life because of my lack of education and poor health.”
Caribou, a mother of six, managed to survive the draconian assimilation agenda — but many did not. Lowball tallies from the horse’s mouth surmise no less than 6,000 children died in these institutional hells — a figure shamefully contrary to collective anecdotal accounts — but the number may never be assessed since the Canadian government simply ceased keeping records in 1920.
Then, mass graves consumed the State’s shame — or so the culpable must have hoped — as Caribou remembered, “Remains were found all over the fields. But numbers do not reflect the reality. Many of my friends committed suicide after their release.”
“I vowed to myself that if I ever get out alive of that horrible place, I would speak up and fight for our rights,” Caribou asserted of the Guy Hill institution in Manitoba, where she resided as an effective prisoner until 1979 — the entire stint, enduring sexual and physical abuse in many forms, from so-called instructors. She recalled having been forced to consume rotten vegetables and a prohibition on speaking her native language of Cree — but speaking about the past, making known the sordid acts of a cruel and unforgivably ignorant state is catharsis.
Victims of genocidal crimes unquestionably have the right to demand and receive privacy, as much as they do to shout every detail into a megaphone for the world to understand.
Without the horrors of abuse on record, the excruciating testimonies will be lost to time, perhaps followed by knowledge of the genocide years after.
But then, it’s almost as if that had been the hope all along.