The federal government says an Indigenous woman who was abused at a residential school must get Ottawa's permission and that of the Catholic Church, which ran the institution, before she can donate documents related to her case to a centre that is preserving the horrific legacy of the schools.
Angela Shisheesh, 72, says she wants to tell the world what happened to her and her sister at the infamous St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., and she is determined to have her story documented at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
"Everybody has to know what took place in that school," Ms. Shisheesh said on Tuesday. "This is why I am not afraid, even though it is hurting me as much as it was when I was there. It feels that I am just reliving everything. But I want to do this. I want to be strong for my brothers and sisters who were there."
In the early 2000s, Ms. Shisheesh was the lead plaintiff in a suit involving 156 students who were physically or sexually abused at the institution. That ended in a financial settlement in 2004 – two years before the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was signed by lawyers for former students, the Assembly of First Nations, the federal government and the churches that ran the schools.
The IRSSA, which compensated those who attended the schools and provided additional money to those were were abused, came after an estimated 18,000 civil actions, included the one involving Ms. Shisheesh, had been launched by survivors.
Among other things, the deal created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to allow former students to recount what happened to them in the schools. The record of that testimony is being held at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
But when Ms. Shisheesh testified this year at the compensation hearing of another St. Anne's student, she learned that the 13-year-old transcripts of her court case, and those of the thousands of others who took the government to court, are not part of the centre's collection.
She is now asking the court to require the government and the Catholic Church to file documents related to her civil claim with the centre. That includes transcripts that have not previously been made available for use during hearings under the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), which was established as part of the class-action agreement to set compensation rates for those who were abused. And she is asking for the same rights to be granted to all the other people involved in the 18,000 claims that predate the IRSSA.
But Justice Department lawyers say in court documents filed last month that those transcripts are privileged and that Ms. Shisheesh can provide them to the centre only "once she has sought waiver of settlement privilege from Canada and the church entity."
Charlie Angus, the NDP critic for Indigenous affairs, said requiring the Catholic Church to give its permission is "like saying you have to go to the abuser and get his permission to tell your story."
The government will go before the Ontario Superior Court in Toronto on Wednesday to ask a judge to dismiss the cases launched by Ms. Shisheesh and another former St. Anne's student who, in an unrelated matter, wants the government to admit it was aware of abuse at the school. The Justice Department lawyers say in the court documents that neither Ms. Shisheesh nor the other woman, identified only as C-14114, were direct parties to the IRSSA and should therefore be denied standing before the court to make arguments related to that agreement.
Ms. Shisheesh is determined to press ahead, in part for the sake of her sister Sophie, who, she said, was locked in an outhouse in the middle of winter by a nun from early morning until late in the afternoon, where her skin froze to the interior of the structure. "I still hear her voice, the time when she was tortured. It was just like a wounded bear, the way she was crying," Ms. Shisheesh said.
Ry Moran, the director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said all the presettlement agreement material, including documents generated in cases such as that of Ms. Shisheesh, is valuable to the centre. "The centre takes the position that every story of every survivor matters and is important for the record, so long as access and privacy conditions are in place."