Fate of residential school records in hands of Supreme Court

The fate of more than 35,000 residential school records is now in the hands of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Opinions vary on whether to destroy or preserve testimony

Tom Roberts and his granddaughter begin a recent six-day community healing walk walk from his former residential school in Prince Albert to his home of Stanley Mission. (Submitted)

​Tom Roberts was prohibited from speaking his native Cree language at the Prince Albert Indian Residential School, but that wasn't the worst part.

Roberts and his siblings attended the school for years, but weren't allowed to speak to each other - in any language. They would pass by each other silently in the halls or school yard.

"If I got caught yelling to them, I'd get a lickin or get sent to the dorm," Roberts said.

"We'd only talk for two months when we went home in June and July."

Roberts, a former broadcaster who now works as a residential school support worker for the Lac la Ronge Indian Band, said Canadians need to know these stories. That's why it's vital for every shred of documentary evidence to be preserved, Roberts said.

"They should be preserved because in years to come, people have to realize, have to come to the reality that this really happened. It's not oral history. It's all documented."

Supreme Court to hear case today

The fate of tens of thousands of those stories is now in the hands of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Today, the country's highest court is set to hear arguments.

Many survivors did testify publicly at nation-wide events held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The retention of those accounts is not in doubt.

What is at stake are the 35,000 accounts given to adjudicators for the Independent Assessment Process. The IAP hearings were set up to determine individual compensation. Nearly all of those cases have been concluded, with more than $3-billion paid to survivors in recognition of the social, cultural, physical and sexual damages.

The IAP hearings were confidential, but many are pushing for the records to be kept. Opinions vary wildly. Some say retaining the records would amount to the greatest privacy breach in Canadian history. Others say destroying them would be a whitewashing of one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history.

Some are suggesting compromises such as redacting names or contacting each individual to ask what they want done with their testimony. Others want the records simply sealed for decades for someone to decide in the future.

Opinions vary, even among First Nations groups

Even First Nations people and groups are divided, with groups such as the Assembly of First Nations pushing for destruction and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations advocating preservation.

Roberts said there are other ways to heal and to raise awareness. 

He's helped organize several events for northern Saskatchewan residents. They built and then burned a canoe modeled after the one that transported dozens of children to the schools. They erected a plaque on La Ronge's main street at the site of an old school. Roberts and others recently walked for six days from the Prince Albert. school back home to Stanley Mission north of La Ronge.

Roberts said these actions are helpful, but preservation of the IAP documents is central for both Canadians and for survivors themselves. He said some survivors are still hesitant to share such painful and often shameful memories, but it must be done.

"In order for them to heal, they must let that frustration and anger out."

The court is expected to hear submissions today. An official said it's unlikely a ruling will come today, with the average time to rulings running an average of four to eight months.