Library and Archives Canada finally releases 98-year-old document on sick First Nations children

Library and Archives Canada's move to finally release a 98-year-old document on Ottawa's treatment of sick First Nations children sheds a small sliver of light onto a part of Canada's history still shrouded by the darkness of locked archives, researchers say.

Library and Archives still keeps majority of old Indian Affairs health files locked away

The cover page of a document that had its contents withheld by the Library and Archives Canada citing 'solicitor-client privilege.' (Submitted by Edward Sadowski)

Library and Archives Canada's move to finally release a 98-year-old document on Ottawa's treatment of sick First Nations children sheds a small sliver of light onto a part of Canada's history still shrouded by the darkness of locked archives, researchers say.

Library and Archives initially refused to release the document under provisions of the Access to Information and Privacy Act that exempts files covered by solicitor-client privilege.

The 1920 document contained a request for advice from Indian Affairs along with the response from the Department of Justice on whether existing provisions in the Indian Act gave officials the power to create regulations allowing for the forcible removal of sick First Nations children.

The document was requested by researcher Edward Sadowski who filed a complaint last October with the federal Office of the Information Commissioner which opened an investigation.

A little over a week after CBC News first reported on the case, Library and Archives informed Sadowski it had reconsidered the case and decided to release the document without restrictions.

"After a more in-depth review of this Access to Information request Library and Archives Canada has decided to apply discretion to open this document which is protected by solicitor client privilege," wrote Julie Gingras, a senior analyst, ina Feb. 9 letter to Sadowski.

Sadowski said he is still befuddled by the issue.

"I don't know why there was restrictions on it at all," he said.

Access to documents difficult

Laurie Meijer Drees, chair of the First Nations studies department at Vancouver Island University, said the released file is part of a "constellation of documents" that map out the ideology, policy and regulatory decisions behind the federal government's handling of health care for Indigenous peoples.

"There are hundreds of documents in archives that should be opened but are not, that we need to look at to get a better impression of what went on," said Drees.

Laurie Meijer Drees, chair of the First Nations Studies department at Vancouver Island University, said the document is part of a 'constellation of documents' that map out the ideology, policy and regulatory decisions behind the federal government’s handling of health care for Indigenous peoples. (YouTube image)

Drees said Library and Archives still keeps all records produced by the federal National Health and Welfare Department locked in their archives. The department took over First Nation and Inuit health care from Indian Affairs in 1945.

Drees said health records produced by Indian Affairs are only accessible through individual requests under the Access to Information Act.

"You can't actually research this topic as as researcher because it could take you 100 years to get them," she said.

Research for court case

Sadowski was requesting the document as part of research to support a failed court application to include the Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium School, where First Nation students who contacted tuberculosis were sent for treatment, as part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

Former residential school students who were sent to the Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium, seen here around 1960, want to be compensated for their time there through the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. (Thunder Bay Museum)

Sadowski said the document reveals the steps Ottawa took to try to deal with tuberculosis outbreaks in First Nations communities, which were made worse by residential schools, while keeping costs down.

"This is a very complex issue," he said.

"You have to look at the bigger picture in this and everything is interconnected. It was about getting rid of 'the Indian problem."

The document, in the form of two letters, is from the era when Duncan Campbell Scott was deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs. Scott was the architect behind amendments to the Indian Act that made it mandatory for First Nations children to attend residential schools.

Scott once stated that Indian Affairs' goal was to find a "final solution of our Indian problem."

The case of a young girl

The March 27, 1920, Indian Affairs letter was written by the assistant deputy and secretary for the department who describes a report from a departmental doctor working on the Peguis First Nation.

The letter describes "the case of a young girl with tubercular spine and the case of a child with eye trouble" who can't be "properly treated in their home but whose parents refuse to permit them to be taken to a hospital for treatment."

A portion of a 98-year-old letter released by Library and Archives Canada which was initially withheld under a provision under the Access to Information and Privacy Act that exempts documents under solicitor-client privilege.

The Indian Affairs official wanted to know whether the department could draft new regulations allowing for the removal of First Nations children from their homes under existing Indian Act provisions.

The Justice Department's deputy minister responded saying that a new amendment to the Indian Act was needed to create the regulations.

Sadowski said the Indian Act was amended by 1927, giving the department the powers it wanted.

A 1926 letter from the United Church to Scott revealed why parents didn't want their sick children taken away for treatment to places like Selkirk, Man.

"The Indians seem to object to their children being sent to Selkirk, as they say they never see them again, because of the distance, and because most of them go there to die," said the letter signed by the United Church's general secretary Rev. J. H. Edmison.

Edmison was writing to Scott about the possible construction of an "isolation hospital" for children with tuberculosis near the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont.

Last month two law firms launched a $1.1 billion class action lawsuit against Ottawa over abuse suffered by "Indian hospital" patients.

About the Author

Jorge Barrera

Reporter

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.