The Guardian [London, England]
October 20, 2022
By Leyland Cecco
Survivors of St Anne’s Indian residential school allege government withheld key evidence in determining compensation for victims
Canada’s supreme court has declined to hear an appeal brought by a group of Indigenous residential school survivors, dealing a major blow to their decade-long fight against federal government over thousands of unreleased documents.
Survivors of St Anne’s Indian residential school had hoped the country’s top court would take their case, which alleges Canada’s federal government withheld crucial evidence in determining compensation for victims of abuse at the school in northern Ontario.
The court did not say why it declined to hear the case, as is standard practice.
But the decision was met with sharp criticism and disbelief by prominent Indigenous voices.
“No words for how horrible this is, how justice is continually denied for St Anne’s Indian Residential School survivors, their families,” the writer Tanya Talaga tweeted. “Canada should have done the right thing when this all first started. Release the records and OPP reports which detail abuse. How hard is this?”
Pam Palmater, a law professor, called the decision “disgusting”, writing on social media that prime minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet should be “ashamed” after fighting the release of the documents.
St Anne’s, which operated from 1902 to 1976 in the community of Fort Albany, was part of the network of church and state-run institutions where 150,000 Indigenous children were sent as part of a campaign of forced assimilation.
The school was notorious for its widespread abuses, including the use of a homemade electric chair constructed to punish Indigenous children.
In 2006, following an apology from the federal government over widespread abuse and neglect within the schools, a framework was announced to determine compensation.
The process began in 2007 and the settlement agreement between survivors and the federal government included a provision that assigned a fixed payout for children who had suffered extreme abuse while at residential schools.
But survivors of St Anne’s say the federal government breached its obligations under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement after withholding documents that could have affected compensation.
Under the agreement, the federal government was obliged to hand over documents that would help in the adjudication of abuse claims and to determine fair compensation.
But the government withheld thousands of relevant documents, part of an investigation by the Ontario provincial police into allegations of sexual and physical abuse at the school in the 1990s.
As a result of the investigation, four former staff members of the school, as well as one Indian Affairs employee, were charged.
The judge overseeing the settlement said the omission was a “mistake” and appeared to be unintentional. But some survivors of the school allege they lost compensation cases – or received lower payouts – over doubts about the abuse they suffered.
A subsequent investigation into the missing documents concluded the federal government should revisit 11 cases of abuse. The federal government said it would reopen the specific cases.
Before the top court’s decision, the Liberal government had urged the supreme court, through court filings, not to intervene in the case.
Charlie Angus, a lawmaker representing the area where the school operated, criticized the court’s decision.
“The Justice Department suppressed evidence of crimes at St Anne’s. Government lawyers attacked survivors in private hearings. Liberals spent millions to perpetuate this injustice.
Now the supreme court says it trusts the government,” he tweeted. “There is no reconciliation.”