Survivors of Indian residential schools are furious that their personal stories of abuse might become public, despite having been guaranteed confidentiality.

They shared excruciating details of their time at the schools in closed-door hearings as part of a claims process. Now, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is asking an Ontario Superior Court whether it can include those stories as part of its National Research Centre.

Phil Gattensby went to a residential school and has worked as a support worker to other survivors in about 50 proceedings. For his part, he is comfortable telling his story to anyone as part of his healing. But he understands that others feel differently. 

"One of them said that if he knew ahead of time people would be putting his story out into a public domain, or whatever you want to call it, that he wouldn't have told his story," Gattensby told CBC News.

The commission says the government doesn't intend to destroy the records, so the National Research Centre is "the safest and most respectful place to protect those records."

Truth and Reconciliation 20130621

Katherine Morrisseau-Sinclair weeps at a signing ceremony in Winnipeg where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission signed an agreement with the University of Manitoba in June 2013, entrusting the University of Manitoba to host a National Research Centre on Residential Schools. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

"The government has decided to send some of these records to Library and Archives Canada, where they will be kept permanently and eventually made available to the public," Kimberly Murray, the commission's executive director, said in a statement. 

"The NRC has the governance structure to ensure aboriginal control over its own records. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission agrees with survivors that the private medical records of survivors submitted during the [process] should be rendered permanently inaccessible to anyone, including government officials."

Confidentiality assured

More than 20,000 people have gone before an adjudicator in a quasi-judicial private hearing, encouraged by the commission to meet the problem head-on by telling their stories.

Many had no desire to go public with the harrowing details of abuse at Indian residential schools as part of a process to seek compensation for abuse and harm they suffered.

Survivors, the lawyers, the adjudicator and any family or support workers in the hearings have to sign a confidentiality agreement. Hence the surprise when the commission — the body mandated to contribute to reconciliation — said it wanted those stories archived in its National Research Centre. 

"They are quite upset," said Peter Grant, a lawyer for survivors. "Every single person we talked to has said, 'No, this is my story. I don't want this story made public.'"

The commission says it is simply trying to clarify how the records from the hearings should be treated. It argues that the research centre is the safest and most respectful place to protect those records.

But Grant said that even if the commission promises to seal the documents in the archive, archives usually become public eventually. And if that happens, what little trust survivors have left will be gone.

"All of the promises made to them would be, in effect, broken," Grant said.

Gattensby said that if the commission wants to put the stories in an archive, they should have to get permission from each and every survivor.

The court will hear the case in July.