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Truth and Reconciliation Commission taking Ottawa to court

Federal documents on residential schools at issue

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OTTAWA — The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is going to court later this month to force Ottawa to turn over federal documents on residential schools.

Commission chairman Murray Sinclair said part of its mandate under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is to collect all the documents available so they are available to Canadians. Under the agreement, Ottawa has to provide the documents.

However, not all federal departments have complied, despite repeated requests, and time is running out for the commission to be able to receive and analyze the documents before the end of its mandate in mid-2014. So the commission is going to court in Ontario Dec. 20 and 21 to try and force the government’s hand.

"Without these documents the job of the commission to represent the truth is in jeopardy," said legal counsel Julian Falconer.

He said although Ottawa knew as early as 2005 when the settlement agreement was agreed to in principle (it became official in 2007), the federal government didn’t start handing over documents until November 2011.

"What’s at stake is, in essence, First Nations control over history," he said.

The commission alleges Ottawa has taken the position it can’t legally hand over documents it obtained from churches during legal settlements and that it is under no obligation to identify and provide relevant documents held by Library and Archives Canada.

Falconer said some of the 23 federal departments that have records related to residential schools have complied but could not say how many. He said about one million documents have been handed over to date but the number of documents outstanding surpasses one million.

NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder asked Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan about the missing documents in question period Monday.

"Mr. Speaker, in 2008, the prime minister promised aboriginal peoples and all Canadians that reconciliation was at the heart of the historical apology to survivors of residential schools, but it was all empty words," she said.

Duncan responded, saying his department is working with the commission to ensure "all relevant documents are made available."

"To date, almost one million have been disclosed, and it is our aim to have the remaining disclosed in 2013," he said. "Our government remains committed to bringing closure to the legacy of residential schools, and we will continue to honour the agreement.

More than 150,000 aboriginal children were forced into residential schools between the 1880s and early 1980s. The schools were run by the churches for the government. Many students told stories of physical and sexual abuse and the imprint of residential schools is still largely blamed for the rampant social problems facing aboriginal Canadians today.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the government of Canada for the saga of residential schools.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was approved by the courts in 2007 as the result of a class-action suit by survivors of residential schools. In addition to establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the settlement offered compensation to survivors as well as additional compensation to victims of abuse.

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