Supreme Court set to rule on Indigenous residential school records

The Supreme Court of Canada will rule Friday on whether thousands of records gathered as part of the 2006 residential school settlement should be preserved as historic records or destroyed to respect the privacy of the survivors.

Court will decide whether accounts by 38,000 survivors should be preserved or destroyed

Students at a residential school are seen in a photo from Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Supreme Court will rule Friday on whether thousands of personal accounts gathered during the residential schools settlement process should be destroyed. (Anglican Church Archives, Old Sun/Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

The Supreme Court of Canada is set to decide whether some of the most sensitive and personal stories of abuse at Canada's residential schools should be preserved or destroyed.

The decision, to be handed down Friday, will determine what should become of more than 38,000 detailed accounts from former students about the mistreatment they suffered while at the schools.

Highly detailed and often painful, the recollections were gathered as part of the federal government's 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

What to do with them is a question that has divided Indigenous groups.

"We have survivors on both sides of the fence on this," said Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which was established in the wake of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The centre is involved in this case and is one of the groups arguing the records should be saved so future generations know the truth about residential schools.

"I think Canadians have a right to know just how bad it was," Moran said.


On the other side are those who argue the records were never meant to be preserved.

The former students' stories were gathered as part of the residential schools settlement through an independent assessment process, which determined how much compensation individual survivors received. Daniel Shapiro, the chief adjudicator of the process, says survivors always believed they were telling their stories in strictest confidence.

"The explanation of the confidentiality agreements was often the key factor in allowing the claimant to gain sufficient comfort to proceed with the hearing," Shapiro wrote in an affidavit filed with the court.

He argues survivors' privacy must be respected.

Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, spent time at a residential school, argues the records should be destroyed. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who suffered abuse during his time in residential school, submitted an affidavit in which he argued the records should be destroyed to protect both victims and alleged abusers.

"If any of this information is placed into an archive, even if it is sealed for 10 years, 50 years, a hundred years or longer, the identities of these perpetrators and their victims will some day become available to their descendants or researchers who may publish information," Fontaine wrote.

"Within our communities, such knowledge, even in future generations, would continue the legacy of dysfunction and trauma that was created by the residential schools."

Personal stories or government documents?

Many churches and religious orders that ran residential schools are also calling for the records to be deleted.

The Assembly of First Nations has argued that unless individual survivors ask for their own stories to be archived, the records should be destroyed.

For its part, the federal government has taken the position that the survivors' accounts are government documents. It says Library and Archives Canada has sole authority to determine which of the records should be preserved due to their historical value.

The 38,000 accounts collected through the independent assessment process are separate from the roughly 7,000 stories compiled by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during its inquiry into the residential school system. Those accounts were gathered in public and private hearings and would not be affected by the Supreme Court ruling.