MP wants answers on why Ottawa suppressed residential school's police files

NDP MP Charlie Angus wants to know what Justice Canada has to hide over its decision to suppress thousands of police files from an investigation into abuse allegations at one of the country's most notorious residential schools.

Justice Canada held thousands of police files proving abuse at St. Anne's, but kept them from survivors

A group of altar boys at St. Anne's Indian Residential School c. 1945 in Fort Albany, Ont. (Edmund Metatawabin collection/Algoma University)

NDP MP Charlie Angus wants to know what Justice Canada has to hide over its decision to suppress thousands of police files from an investigation into abuse allegations at one of the country's most notorious residential schools.

Angus, the member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay, has been battling Justice Canada for years trying to obtain information under the Access to Information and Privacy Act.

He wants to know why the department kept the police investigation files away from Indian residential school survivors who needed to prove claims of abuse suffered at St. Anne's Indian residential school, which operated in Fort Albany, Ont., along the James Bay coast. 

The Ontario Provincial Police files included allegations about the use of a homemade electric chair, sexual and physical assaults, and accounts of school officials using snare wire to whip students.

Angus said the federal information watchdog is again investigating the department over the release of heavily redacted documents related to the department's suppression of the files.

New investigation

Angus said he met with officials from the Office of the Information Commissioner on Wednesday and he was told they would be launching another investigation. 

"The pattern of obstruction is so clear from the department of Justice," said Angus.

"The question has be to asked: What is it about St. Anne's residential school that the Justice department has taken such a brass-knuckles approach to undermining their legal obligations, suppressing evidence and defying the information commissioner? What is it they are trying to protect?"

The Office of the Information Commissioner did not provide a comment, despite repeated requests.

Justice Canada said in a statement it always complies with the Access to Information Act. 

"Where a complaint is lodged with the Information Commissioner, the department is committed to resolving the complaint in a timely and effective manner," said the statement.

Documents released heavily redacted

The Office of the Information Commissioner first launched an investigation in 2014 into Justice Canada's "unreasonable" delay in responding to Angus' initial request — which was amended several times — under the Access to Information Act.

Angus was seeking documents related to Ottawa's decision to withhold thousands of police files during Indian residential school settlement hearings known as the Independent Assessment Process. The files were from an OPP investigation launched in the 1990s into abuse allegations at St. Anne's.

An example of one of the documents received by NDP MP Charlie Angus from Justice Canada on his request for information. (CBC News)

Justice Canada eventually agreed to release the documents in several batches between March 2017 and April 2018. The department has so far released thousands of pages, but the information in almost every document, except for a handful of scattered sentences and email addresses, is completely redacted.

"We have been dealing with the information commissioner for well over three years, trying to find any documents that explain why the justice department opted to suppress thousands of pages of police testimony, witness statements, regarding the rapes, the torture and the abuse of children at St. Anne's," said Angus.

"We have been stonewalled at every level."

OPP files needed for compensation hearings

In 2014, an Ontario judge had ordered Justice Canada to turn over the OPP files to St. Anne's residential school survivors who were involved in settlement hearings created by the multi-billion dollar Indian residential school settlement agreement.

Justice Canada held the OPP documents within in its archives but never disclosed them to survivors who were seeking compensation for the abuse.

NDP MP Charlie Angus says of getting documents from Justice Canada about the delays in releasing the OPP files, 'We have been stonewalled at every level.' (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Survivors in the hearings relied on Justice Canada and Indigenous Affairs, which held historical residential school files, to disclose documents to prove they attended the schools and also to support their abuse claims.

Several instances emerged where Justice Canada lawyers at settlement hearings denied abuse allegations despite the OPP investigative files — which led to several convictions — proving abuse was rampant at the school.

The use of the electric chair as punishment and sport was described by St. Anne's survivor Edmund Metatawabin in his book, Up Ghost River.

Ottawa continues to face litigation over St. Anne's residential school cases.

About the Author

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