OTTAWA -- There may not be enough time or money left in the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to complete the necessary work, the head of the commission said Tuesday.
Justice Murray Sinclair told the Free Press he hasn't asked for an extension yet, but has warned the parties involved of the growing time crunch, mainly because of delays getting documents on residential schools from the federal government.
"I think they're taking the matter seriously now," he said. "Our concern is whether we have enough time and money."
Sinclair made his comments in the wake of an auditor general's report released Tuesday that highlights numerous problems between the commission and the government for finding, organizing, digitizing and analyzing thousands of documents on residential schools that are to form part of a permanent research collection at a national research centre.
In his spring report, auditor general Michael Ferguson called out both the government and the commission for causing the delays because they couldn't agree on what documents needed to be provided to create the research collection, nor could they agree on who was responsible for scanning or copying the documents to make them available for the commission's use, or even what format digital documents would take.
The two sides also butted heads about whether Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada had to search for more documents than it had already uncovered to respond to court claims by residential school survivors. In January, a federal court ruled AANDC did have to search for all the documents.
The government did not appeal that ruling and Sinclair said there seems to be co-operation now, although not a single new document has been handed over by Library and Archives Canada since the court decision four months ago.
There are millions of documents to go through to determine their relevance and then provide to the commission in a format that makes them easily searched by survivors and their families at the national research centre. In 2011, Library and Archives Canada estimated the relevant documents from just 19 departments would "stretch for about 20 kilometres," which amounts to about 69,000 boxes of paper. It would cost about $40 million and take up to a decade to find and digitize the documents.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons Tuesday the government had already handed over 3.5 million documents and would continue to co-operate with the commission. "The process is continuing and the government will continue to give documents to the commission," he said during question period.
But there are only 15 months left in the commission's five-year mandate.
Sinclair said there is no obvious way to extend the commission's mandate because the commission isn't a government entity; it's the creation of a court-negotiated settlement between survivors, the government and the churches that ran the schools.
He said if it comes to needing an extension, he will likely go to court to seek a remedy.
"They should have been doing the work before now. The fact we are doing this so late in the day really concerns me."