Bishop Horden residential school survivors fight Ottawa in court

Former students of Bishop Horden residential school in Moose Factory, Ont., are in court today to try to force the federal government to search for documents that the survivors say would help corroborate their claims of abuse at the school.

Claimants want judge to compel federal government to search for key documents

Female students at Bishop Horden Residential School in Moose Factory, Ont. circa 1955. (Anglican Church of Canada General Synod Archives/Algoma University Archives)

A group of aboriginal residential school survivors was in Ontario Superior Court Wednesday asking a judge to force the federal government to search for documents the former residents believe will help corroborate their claims of abuse.

The nine former students attended Bishop Horden residential school in Moose Factory, Ont. in the 1960s. They have pursued claims through the independent assessment process, the system set up under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement for former students to seek compensation for abuse.

Under the arrangement, the federal government is obliged to provide information about the former residential school, the people that worked there and any charges or convictions on record.

But in documents filed in court, the claimants say the government's disclosure does not mention what these former students say they witnessed: namely, that some of the supervisors at Bishop Horden were arrested by police and some supervisors were fired.

They believe there must be documents, perhaps within the RCMP, to back up their recollections.

"To the adjudicator and [Department of Justice] counsel appearing at the IAP hearing, and even to the claimant's counsel, with no documents coming forward about police involvement, it looks like a huge mistake or lie by that applicant," the claimant documents say.

The former students say that while the government has come up empty in a search of historical records at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and at Library and Archives Canada, it has not made searches of the RCMP or the Department of Justice.

The judge reserved his decision Wednesday.

Similarities to battle over St. Anne's school

The case is similar to a court battle won by survivors of another Ontario residential school, St. Anne's, in Fort Albany, Ont., to get thousands of pages of police records, which documented convictions of staff at that school.

Edmund Metatawabin heads up a St. Anne's survivor group and is the former chief of Fort Albany.

"We know from past experience that there is no incentive for the government to do a proper search," he told CBC News.

But the federal government says, in its documents filed in court, that there is no evidence such records exist and that the government "has made extensive and good faith efforts to gather documents for use in the IAP."

The government also argues the claimants are "misguided" in their concern that, without the documents, their allegations in their IAP hearings will appear to be a "huge mistake or a lie."

But Metatawabin says that view is not how the hearings work in reality.

"They say it's not adversarial, but it is very adversarial, we find," he said.

Charlie Angus is the New Democrat MP for the area in which the Bishop Horden school used to operate.

"If there were police investigations, if there were people who were removed because of their abuse of children, those records should exist," he said in an interview.

"Are we to trust a government that was willing to suppress court evidence from the 1990s on the St. Anne's abuse and trust them that they're actually going to look out for evidence from the '50s or '60s from Bishop Horden? There is no trust here."

The office of Bernard Valcourt, the minister of aboriginal affairs, said in a statement to CBC News that the government remains committed to the fair, full and timely implementation of the settlement agreement.

"Our government has already produced all documents in its possession relating to Bishop Horden school for use in the independent assessment process," the statement said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has spent six years hearing horrific stories of abuse from survivors of residential schools across the country. Its final public events are to take place over the next two weeks.