Sask. lawyer at centre of massive effort to contact 37,000 residential school survivors after court ruling

Canada's Supreme Court has ruled that testimony given during the independent assessment process for residential school survivors' compensation will be destroyed after 15 years, unless individuals consent to the records being archived.

Supreme Court rules Indigenous residential school records can be destroyed

Saskatoon lawyer Dan Shapiro will be part of an effort to ask 37,000 residential school survivors what they want done with records of their testimony. (IAP)

A Saskatoon lawyer will be at the centre of a massive effort to ask 37,000 residential school survivors if they want their records preserved.

The campaign is the result of Friday's Supreme Court of Canada ruling. The court ruled unanimously that transcripts of testimony given during the independent assessment process for residential school survivors' compensation will be destroyed after 15 years, unless individuals consent to the records being archived or made public.

The campaign to notify residential school survivors about the decision could include paid advertisements, Facebook and other social media notifications, and community meetings, lawyer Dan Shapiro told CBC News.

Shapiro is already working with the federal government, the Assembly of First Nations and others on the plan. If approved, it could begin early in the new year.

"That's the next step," Shapiro said.

Students at the Gordon's Reserve school in Saskatchewan. Testimony given by survivors of residential schools during the independent assessment process for compensation will now be destroyed after 15 years, unless individuals decide otherwise. (General Synod Archives/Anglican Church of Canada)

The survivors' testimony was gathered as part of the federal government's 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, intended to promote reconciliation by, in part, providing financial compensation for the survivors.

Shapiro, who served as chief adjudicator for the independent assessment process, applauded Friday's ruling. He said survivors were promised confidentiality in the beginning, and the "legal limbo" has caused many of them years of anxiety.

"It's been a difficult process for me and the secretariat, but a much more difficult one for survivors who were waiting for the issue to be resolved," Shapiro said.

"The finality is welcome."

Shapiro has long argued the position taken by the Supreme Court, but opinions have varied wildly on what to do with the records among lawyers, historians, First Nations organizations and others.

Some wanted all records destroyed immediately. Others wanted them all archived for their historical significance.

Shapiro said Friday's decision strikes a good balance — maintaining confidentiality and giving survivors the power to preserve their testimony if they choose.

Red Pheasant Cree Nation lawyer Michelle Good applauded the Supreme Court ruling on residential school documents.
Lawyer and Red Pheasant Cree Nation band member Michelle Good also welcomed the ruling. She has worked with many survivors and played a role in the establishment of the independent assessment process.

She agreed that survivors, including her mother, Martha Soonias, deserved confidentiality.

"It took great courage for people to come forward and to speak about these terrible, terrible atrocities that happened, and I know that they must all be breathing a sigh of relief that their secrets are safe," Good said.

"I am deeply relieved."

The assessment process was established to evaluate compensation. That process has been both hailed and criticized as well.

It is distinct from the testimony given publicly across Canada to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There, 7,000 survivors and their family members chose to speak publicly about their experiences or their hopes for change. The transcripts of that testimony are public and are not in dispute.

About the Author

Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.