OTTAWA -- An Ontario judge Tuesday ruled the federal government has an obligation to provide the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with all relevant documents about Indian residential schools.
Justice Stephen Goudge ruled the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement lays out two fundamental tasks for the TRC: compiling a historical record of residential schools and preparing a report on that history.
Canada providing relevant documents on residential schools would be vital to that mandate, ruled the judge. The government also gave the TRC a limited amount of time and a limited budget, neither of which would be sufficient for TRC staff to search for the documents themselves.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission took Ottawa to court in December after not all federal departments complied with requests to get the documents. It feared it would run out of time in its mandate, which expires in 2014, if the government continued to drag its feet on providing documents.
The biggest obstacle appeared to be a dispute over whether documents housed at Library and Archives Canada were covered by the agreement, and whether the government had to research and compile the documents for the TRC or could simply allow TRC workers into the archives to look for documents itself.
The TRC's lawyer, Julian Falconer, said this is a landmark decision.
"This was about ensuring survivors and their families have some control over their history," he said.
More than one million documents have been handed over thus far, but there are more than one million more outstanding, Falconer said. Only one of 24 departments that have acknowledged having residential-school documents in archives has even done a search, he said.
A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the government is reviewing the court ruling.
"We will continue to fulfil our obligations under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to address the legacy of the Indian residential schools," said Jason MacDonald.
More than 150,000 aboriginal children were forced into residential schools between the 1880s and early 1980s as Canada embarked on a mission of assimilation. Churches ran the schools 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.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008 on behalf of the federal government for the residential-schools saga.