Indian residential school claimants stalled by document search

Thousands of former Indian residential school students have been unable to proceed with compensation applications because of difficulty obtaining mandatory documents, including medical records, needed for their claims.

Requests for mandatory documents overwhelm hospitals, leave survivors in limbo

Many former Indian residential school survivors have been unable to proceed with claims because of the difficulty obtaining the medical records needed. Above, boys sit in a classroom at St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., circa 1945. (Edmund Metatawabin collection/Algoma University)

Thousands of former Indian residential school survivors are still waiting to begin the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) — an out-of-court procedure for those who experienced sexual, physical or other serious abuses at residential schools.

According to the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat, which oversees the hearings, the collection of mandatory documents has been identified as the most significant barrier to scheduling more hearings.

This process was set up in 2007. Currently there are 8,209 claims that are still waiting for a scheduled hearing. Over 50 per cent of these applications are being held up because they lack mandatory documents, the most common being medical records.

John Edwards is one of many survivors who is unable to proceed with his IAP hearings because he is missing mandatory documents. 

When he was just a child, Edwards lost both his parents to tuberculosis. He was taken from his home on the Attawapiskat First Nation and forced to attend the notorious St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont.

“It wasn’t only the missionaries that abused the students," Edwards recalled. “The abuse was rampant even among students.”

Edwards spent six years at St. Anne's. Now at the age of 60, Edwards has waited nearly six years for compensation. His case is on hold because his file is still missing medical records​

“They’re pretty slow around the James Bay area,” said Edwards.

Hospitals swamped by requests

According to an affidavit sworn by Janice Soltys, Weeneebayko Health has received over 1,000 IAP requests between 2010 and 2013. (Weeneebayko Health)
Soltys is the manager of health information services and chief privacy officer at Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, which provides services to six communities along the James Bay and Hudson Bay lowlands.

“The struggle for us is that a high percentage of population from our communities went to residential schools,” said Soltys.

According to an affidavit by Soltys, Weeneebayko Health has received over 1,000 IAP requests between 2010 and 2013.

“We only have one full-time dedicated staff member to do all of the requests.”

Already the health authority operates in a deficit, and the cost of photocopying and paying overtime or hiring new staff adds to the burden. No money was set aside in the settlement agreement for hospitals.​ 

Some of the individual records involve thousands of pages, and some records dating back to the 1930s require extra time for photocopying.

Weeneebayko Health is also struggling to find some of the necessary documents.

Before the Weeneebayko Health centre opened in 1950, it was a tuberculosis sanatorium. Records from this time are sketchy. When a Moosonee hospital burned down in 1969, its records were lost. A Fort Albany hospital also burned down, and the status of its records is unknown.

Edwards fears survivors won't see settlements

Today, Edwards provides translation services for IAP lawyers and their clients, often hearing tragic stories from aging survivors that mirror his own.

He fears that survivors are going to die before they receive their settlements.

The adjudication secretariat has the power to schedule expedited hearings for survivors who are at risk of dying before their hearing. Approximately, 360 claims are being heard on an expedited basis.

If a survivor dies after a hearing, but before a decision has been issued, the file may continue through the IAP estate claims process.

But if a survivor passes away prior to a hearing, the claim will not go further.

Edwards tries not to get frustrated while waiting for his hearing. In the meantime, Edwards can see the inter-generational effects of the residential school system in his community. 

“It’s crisis after crisis and nothing is being done,” said Edwards. 


Originally from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) located in northwestern Ontario, Martha Troian is an investigative journalist who frequently contributes to CBC News, including work on the multiple award-winning and ongoing Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Follow her @ozhibiiige