Who ultimately controls the stories of 38,000 residential school survivors may finally be decided on May 25 when the question goes before the Supreme Court.
The courts have consistently ruled it is up to the survivors to decide what happens to their own accounts of their experiences, stories that led to Ottawa paying out more than $5 billion in compensation, and that it is the survivors’ wishes that must be upheld and respected. The courts say the 38,000 survivors have 15 years to decide individually if their stories should be preserved in an archive at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba or be destroyed.
But a coalition representing the children and grandchildren of residential school survivors was recently granted intervention status at the hearing. They want to save the 38,000 stories, which they say are the largest firsthand accounts of the residential school system.
“When I ask people if they want their story deleted, I ask them to think about it in the intergenerational perspective,” said Carey Newman, founder of the Coalition to Preserve Truth and the artist behind the Witness Blanket, a massive, art installation — made up of leftover pieces of residential school items, churches and government buildings. The blanket is currently touring the country. Newman is of British, Kwagiulth and Salish descent.
“Think about it with the idea that we as Indigenous people work to protect the Earth and the water for future generations because we don’t feel it belongs specifically to us. We are stewards of the world. What we consume here we are taking from the future. There is intergenerational trauma that cycles through our community generation after generation, and the only way to stop it is to confront it and understand the root of where it comes from,” he said.
Nearly 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families from the mid-1800s to the 1990s when the last school funded by the government and run by the church, shut its doors. Residential schools were meant to assimilate Indigenous people to Canadian society and to Christianize them.
Many of the students were physically, sexually and emotionally abused. They were malnourished, inadequately clothed and housed and they were forbidden to speak their own language and practice their own culture. The shattering effects of that abuse runs through generations of Indigenous families.
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, a comprehensive settlement of class actions, made way for a process for survivors to settle abuse claims with Canada if they went through an Independent Assessment Process (IAP) to tell their stories. It is those horrific stories, contained on application forms and written and audio records, which are now the subject of the Supreme Court case.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) believes the former residential schools students must be in complete control of their own stories — accounts that were shared under the belief they would never become public, said National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
“The AFN recognizes that people have different views on this matter. The AFN takes the position that personal stories and experiences belong to the individual, and they have the right to decide what happens to their testimony,” Bellegarde said.
“The use, access, storage, copying and dissemination of information by or with the assistance of the NCTR must ensure that the privacy interests of Independent Assessment Process claimants and former students are protected at all times. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement provides a mechanism for IAP claimants to archive their IAP records. As this process moves on in court, the AFN remains focused on working towards justice, healing and reconciliation.”
Newman, whose father Victor attended two residential schools, said he wanted to be a voice for the survivors and the intergenerational survivors because those perspectives were missing from earlier hearings. They are raising money to fund the court intervention.
In the interests of privacy, last week, the coalition indicated to the court that they want the names redacted from each survivor’s statement along with the names of perpetrators redacted so they will not be identified.
“That is the balance we have struck to address the concerns of survivors who want their stories protected and also to balance it against the collective interest of intergenerational survivors of historical relevance. That is the focus of our intervention in the case,” Newman said. The coalition has started a campaign raising money for their court effort at gofundme.com/standfortruth.