Ottawa's move to block statistical reports on residential schools 'modern-day colonialism,' says survivor

The federal government's attempts to control the records produced by an organization that processed over 38,000 residential school abuse claims "feels like modern-day colonialism" and "a legal sham," according to residential school survivors. 

'The detail is what makes it real,' says Holocaust scholar in response to judge's comments

Garnet Angeconeb, who attended Pelican Lake residential school, received the Order of Canada in 2013. (Submitted by Garnet Angeconeb)

The federal government's attempts to control the records produced by an organization that processed over 38,000 residential school abuse claims "feels like modern-day colonialism" and "a legal sham," according to residential school survivors. 

Ottawa won an initial round in ongoing litigation around the fate of records held by the Independent Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat, obtaining an order blocking the creation of detailed statistical reports that would identify which residential schools were linked to the most abuse complaints. 

The federal government also successfully argued it owned the secretariat's records and they should be transferred to the Crown-Indigenous Relations department which would then hand them over to Library and Archives Canada, instead of transferring them directly to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which was created as an archive for residential school records. 

"All records stemming from the redress process of the Indian residential school legacy should be public record and not subject to more legal wrangling," said Garnet Angeconeb, who attended Pelican Lake Indian Residential School, near Sioux Lookout and received the Order of Canada, in an email. 

"We often hear that the Indian residential schools legacy is our 'collective' or 'shared' history as a country. Why then is that one side is driving this contemporary history through the use of law? It looks like, smells like, feels like modern-day colonialism at its best."

Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perell ruled in January against the release of detailed statistical reports that would include how many and what types of claims each residential school was linked to and broad profiles of survivors who filed claims, saying they would do little to advance truth and reconciliation. 

The information would have been drawn from the secretariat's database which has nearly two decades of information from every claim filed since the compensation process began.

Ottawa argued, and the judge agreed, that the detailed statistics could identify individual survivors despite safeguards promised by the secretariat and violate a 2017 Supreme Court decision that forbade the archiving of individual claim information processed by the secretariat unless survivors actively request it. 

If they do not, their personal claim records will be destroyed in 2027. 

In his decision, Perell made an analogy about the Holocaust.

"Just as the history of the Holocaust will not be different for not knowing which was worse, Auschwitz or Treblinka, I do not see how truth and reconciliation will be advanced by reports identifying which school was the worst of the worst or ranking schools in the order of which school had more student-on-student sexual assaults than staff sexual assaults," wrote Perell.

'Burden shouldn't always be on the victims'

Doris Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe professor of Holocaust studies at the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, said the judge's analogy is mistaken. 

"It makes an enormous difference to distinguish between Treblinka and Auschwitz," said Bergen. 

"Looking at the data in a fine-grained way is not about asking almost simplistic questions — which was worse — it's about saying 'How do things work here?' Those kinds of distinctions become really significant."

Bergen referred to a scene from the 1985 Holocaust documentary film Shoah where filmmaker Claude Lanzmann asks the wife of a Nazi school teacher how many Jews were killed at the Chelmno extermination camp in Poland. The woman says it was terrible, but couldn't recall a number, remembering only that it had a four in it. The filmmaker then says 400,000. 

If you really care about a thing, you care enough to learn about it in detail, because the detail is what makes it real.- Doris Bergen

"I feel that's the way a lot of European-Canadians... that when we talk about residential schools and the wider destruction of Indigenous lives and communities, that somehow it's enough to say it's terrible," said Bergen. 

"But if you really care about a thing, you care enough to learn about it in detail, because the detail is what makes it real."

Bergen said historians have since revised the number of those killed in Chelmno. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says 172,000 people were killed in Chelmno between December 1941 and March 1943 and in June-July 1944.

Bergen said her field of study relies heavily on the historical record.

"The whole burden shouldn't always be on the victims and survivors to, quote, 'tell their stories,'" she said. 

"Often hiding behind, 'oh it's so shameful,' becomes an excuse for the people on the privilege side not to hear things that are painful for us to think about…. It's the same in the Holocaust field." 

Ruling being appealed

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is appealing the January ruling.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which is a signatory to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, is involved in the litigation. National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in an emailed statement that the organization is ensuring the "rights and interests" of survivors are protected and that "no one is re-victimized in seeking compensation for abuse."

Mike Cachaghee attended three residential schools in Ontario: St. John's residential school in Chapleau, Bishop Horden in Moose Factory, and Shingwauk in Sault Ste. Marie.

The Shingwauk residential school dining hall circa 1890. (Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association/The Shingwauk Project)

Cachaghee said the government is hiding behind arguments over the privacy of survivors to protect itself and prevent the release of records and information. 

"Throughout the whole process [Canada's] first concern was to limit their risk," said Cachagee. 

"It has nothing to do with protecting the identity of claimants.... It's just another stream of them protecting and reducing their risk… It's a sham; it's a legal sham."

Cachagee said it's vital to preserve as many records as possible from the secretariat because once all survivors are gone, the only thing left to tell the history will be recorded testimony and records. 

"It's our history on the way Canada treated us. It's not the history of the way we treated Canada," he said. 

"The preservation of our history of how we were treated is central to who we are now and who we are going to be in the future."

Angeconeb and Cachagee said the residential schools settlement agreement needed to undergo a comprehensive independent review before the compensation claim process concludes in March 2021 to gauge where it met or failed to live up to its promise of justice.


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