OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada says records detailing the abuse of former residential school students can eventually be destroyed.
The 7-0 high court ruling Friday brings clarity to an issue that pitted the privacy of victims against the importance of documenting a dark chapter in Canada’s relations with Indigenous Peoples.
For over a century, tens of thousands of Indigenous children were required to attend residential schools, primarily run by religious institutions and funded by the federal government. Students were not allowed to use their languages or cultural practices.
Sensitive material should be destroyed after 15 years
Students provided accounts of physical, sexual and emotional abuse as part of an independent assessment process to provide compensation — a program that flowed from a major 2006 settlement agreement aimed at ensuring a lasting resolution of the residential schools legacy.
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that said the sensitive material collected for the independent assessments should be destroyed after 15 years.
In its reasons for the decision, the Supreme Court said the negotiators of the settlement agreement intended the assessment process to be a confidential and private one, and that claimants and alleged perpetrators relied on these confidentiality assurances.
Under the process, claimants disclosed intimate personal information, including a first-person narrative outlining his or her request for compensation. Applications were then forwarded to the federal government and the church organization that operated the residential school.
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If the claim was not settled at this stage, it proceeded to a hearing before an adjudicator, supervised by the chief adjudicator of the Indian Residential Schools Secretariat. The settlement agreement operations branch of the federal Indigenous Affairs Department represented the government as a defendant to the claims.
Participants were advised that the hearings would be held in private, and that each person who attended must sign a confidentiality agreement.
The secretariat and the operations branch both possess digital and physical copies of various records pertaining to more than 37,000 claims made under the assessment process.
The Assembly of First Nations had told the Supreme Court that overturning the lower court decision would allow another breach of trust on the very same vulnerable people who were abused at residential schools as young children.
The federal government unsuccessfully argued the documentary record must be fully preserved to ensure what happened is never forgotten.
It said federal laws governing access to information, privacy and archives provide the proper balance for safeguarding the records of historical value while protecting individual privacy and confidentiality.
A lower court had said while the material should be destroyed after 15 years, individuals could agree to have their stories preserved at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
The centre’s mission is to archive and store records created by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established as part of the settlement agreement, along with historical documents regarding residential schools.