Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Find and release the documents

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Much of the critical work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission requires access to documents amassed during the history of Indian residential schools, dating back to the late 1800s. A dispute over which documents, and who should be culling through the hundreds of thousands of boxes in storage, is headed to court. This is an expensive, wasteful exercise.

The dispute threatens to delay the work of the commission, which is supposed to wrap up its work by mid-2014, to set out the full story and legacy of a policy that took more than 150,000 native children from their families to be assimilated in schools operated by churches. The broad narrative is well-known: Children were denied the right to speak their language, many were physically, sexually and emotionally abused and some died or ran away. The details that paint the whole story, however, are cached in government, institutional and church file cabinets and archives.

Although about a million pages have been released already, the commission and the federal government disagree over what the latter is obligated to release from a court dispute that created the commission. Ottawa also says it is not its job to sort through archival holdings -- more than 100,000 boxes of records at Library and Archives Canada, and 40,000 boxes at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. The commission says that job alone would cost more than its entire $60-million budget.

It was clear, when the churches and Ottawa penned a court settlement, they were committing to release relevant documents, including those gathered during the court process, by agreement. Ottawa now insists it can't legally release information the churches gave it. The churches, however, committed to disclosure at the time.

The commission is not specific about all the documents it is seeking. That should have been settled in discussions with those holding the files long ago to make the search manageable. But the court agreement clearly puts the onus of release on the government and churches.

This obstruction threatens to mar the national apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 for a destructive policy that, in totality, scarred generations of First Nations people and hobbled their relationship with successive governments with distrust and suspicion.

The reluctance to release the files harbouring the details that may answer the lingering questions of so many families feeds the distrust. Mr. Harper should insist the spirit of the apology be applied and order his government to start digging and then release.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2012 A10

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