Erasing History on the Pretense of Preserving Privacy: Why the Supreme Court of Canada is Allowing the Destruction of Records of Residential School Abuse

One of the ways to persecute is to rob people of their history. This was done by male historians seeking to undervalue the contributions of women. It was done by white historians seeking to confirm racist ideologies.

Now a group of all white judges has entrenched the power of a body created by a white majority government to rob the victims of residential schools of their history. On October 6, 2017 the Supreme Court of Canada made it legal for the authorities in charge of compensating the victims of the residential school system to destroy the records of the abuse after a given delay.

Before we get into why the highest court in Canada came to this decision, we need to talk about residential schools.

Residential schools refer to a system of schools established by the Canadian government and run by Christian religious groups in an attempt to assimilate the Native population into Canadian society. They operated in Canada from the late 1860s to the 1990s. Despite remarks by such insensitive racist imbeciles as Senator Lynn Beyak, the schools were a nightmare for the children and their families, the effects of which are still felt to this day.

During this period, children were ripped from their parents and forced to live at these schools where they were beaten, tortured, and raped in an attempt to wipe out their language, culture, and history. Parents who refused to give up their children were threatened with starvation. Survivor Ronnie Otter’s parents were told their winter rations would be withheld if they didn’t send their kids away.

Many of the victims who went as children are still haunted by memories of being forced into oral and anal sex, scrubbed raw with rough brushes, and fed food more fit for livestock. Though they were promised good schooling, they were given a fifth grade education and trained to do manual labour such as agriculture, housework, and woodworking, not unlike in the Bantu education system of apartheid South Africa.

In 2008, the Canadian government under Stephen Harper issued a much needed formal apology to the victims and their families. In the apology the Canadian government formally recognized that:

“…this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country… ”

It should be noted however that while Canada’s Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches have apologized for their role in what happened to the eighty thousand survivors and their families, the Catholic Church has not. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops claims that the independence of individual dioceses and their bishops absolves them of any responsibility. It is both ironic and unfortunate that the authorities of a religion so dependent on symbolism are incapable of providing even a symbolic show of remorse so desperately needed by people tortured in their name.

That said, let’s talk about how and why the Supreme Court came to their decision.

The records referred to in the Supreme Court’s decision are specifically those from the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) resulting from the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

The Agreement was the result of a consensus reached between the legal representatives of survivors, the Churches involved, the Assembly of First Nations and other aboriginal organizations and the Government of Canada on how to address the legacy of residential schools. It was brought on by numerous class action lawsuits against the Canadian government by the victims of residential schools seeking compensation and recognition for the persecution they endured.

Among the things agreed upon was a Common Experience Payment for all eligible survivors of the residential schools, a form of financial compensation for the victims of abuse at the hands of the government and the Churches acting in its name. Eligibility was determined by the Independent Assessment Process which entailed survivors disclosing extremely sensitive information about the abuse they suffered and the consequences therein. The information also included medical reports, hearing transcripts, and reasons for decisions in each case, all of which are held by the Government of Canada. The overall goal was to determine the credibility of each claimant and the harm they suffered.

As per the Supreme Court’s ruling, these records can be destroyed after fifteen years, though individuals can apply to have the information in their files preserved. The Court decided on destruction of the records after a certain delay for a few reasons, the primary one being that of confidentiality.

The Supreme Court decided that all participants in the Independent Assessment Process agreed on destruction of the information as part of the high degree of confidentiality of the process, the same way one would for a contract. Confidentiality was agreed upon in part to allow the victims to retain ownership of their stories and the horror of what they endured while maintaining their privacy. It was also to ensure the participation of religious organizations that would not have done so otherwise despite their active participation in the abuse.

The Court also stated that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established as part of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was for “creating a complete historical record of the residential schools system, and promoting awareness and public education of Canadians about the residential schools system and its impacts”. The court said that those who participated in the IAP were welcome to share their experiences with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that the confidentiality rules ensured them that choice.

The decision appears to be based on preserving the dignity of Residential School survivors, but it has a flipside of destroying records of abuse that implicate the government and religious groups that should be held to account for what they did. Though a survivor may want to keep their experience confidential, that can change in fifteen or sixteen years whether or not they apply to preserve the records. At the end of the day, the only people this decision protects are the abusers and the people who allowed it by destroying the evidence.

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