Survivors wait for next steps in effort to preserve 'horror stories' of residential schools

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled residential school survivors must decide whether their accounts of abuse should be preserved or destroyed. Plans are now being drawn up to contact survivors and ask them their wishes.

Plans being developed to reach out to survivors in the wake of Supreme Court ruling

Residential school children students are seen in a typical classroom. Former students will be asked if they want the record of their abuse preserved or destroyed. (Anglican Church Archives, Old Sun/Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

Residential school survivors say they are waiting for answers about how records of their experiences will be preserved in the wake of a recent Supreme Court ruling.

The court handed down a decision this month laying out guidelines for what should happen to more than 38,000 accounts of abuse of former students.

They were collected as part of the federal government's 2006 compensation agreement with residential school survivors.

The court gave survivors 15 years to decide whether they want their accounts preserved in an archive administered by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

If no consent is provided, the court ruled, the records must be destroyed. The question some survivors are now asking is what comes next.

"There's a lot of confusion out there," said Mike Cachagee of Ontario Indian Residential School Support Services.

Cachagee, who is himself a residential school survivor, said former students have been approaching him looking for information.

"They want to know, if they want to preserve their records .… how do they go about doing that. Who will contact them? What is the process?"

Informing survivors

The records of abuse were gathered through the Independent Assessment Process, or IAP. The IAP argued in court that only survivors should decide whether their stories should be stored in an archive for future generations.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, the chief adjudicator of the IAP, Dan Shapiro, said work was underway on a process to contact survivors and inform them of their options.

"We have made good progress on developing a comprehensive notice program that targets IAP claimants, their families and communities," Shapiro wrote.

"We have a draft outline of a robust plan that includes community engagements, paid advertising, social media, earned media and other techniques designed to reach Indigenous people across Canada."

The IAP said the plan will be put before a judge for final approval. But even before that, it said survivors can contact the IAP and submit a written request that their records be transferred to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation for archiving.

'Sensitive' decision

The director of the centre, Ry Moran, had argued all 38,000 records should be placed in the centre's archive in the interest of preserving the full history of the residential school system. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled against that, Moran said any plan to contact survivors and ask them their wishes must be carried out in a sensitive manner.

"All survivors will likely find this decision a complicated one, a sensitive one, and one that they will need to reflect on at length in order to do what is best for them and their families," Moran said.

Moran has been meeting with Indigenous groups and hopes they can agree quickly on how to best reach out to survivors.

"This is absolutely more than sending out a letter. I think all the parties recognize that," Moran said.

My great-grandchildren are entitled to learn what happened to me.- Mike Cachagee

Mike Cachagee says survivors need to feel comfortable in making their decision. The accounts gathered by the IAP are deeply personal, highly graphic and disturbing in their detail.

"Some of them were absolutely horror stories," said Cachagee, who, over the years, helped many survivors make it through the trauma of recounting their own terrible experiences before the IAP.

"Some of them were so horrific, you'd say Stephen King couldn't write something like that."

Cachagee said he's spoken to his wife and family and let them know he wants his own story placed in an archive for posterity. He said it's all part of gaining control over a difficult part of his life. He also believes it's a part of Canada's history that must never be forgotten. Many survivors likely feel the same way.

"Our children are entitled to learn what happened to us," Cachagee said.

"My great-grandchildren are entitled to learn what happened to me."