OTTAWA — An effort is underway to tell residential school survivors their records can still be preserved if they choose, says Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett — comments that follow a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling that said documentation on the abuse of former students can eventually be destroyed.
Earlier this month, the top court unanimously upheld a lower court ruling that said the sensitive material collected for independent assessments should be destroyed after 15 years.
Bennett, who expressed her personal disappointment immediately following the court's decision, has told The Canadian Press she now fears researchers will not be able to explore central questions about the residential school legacy if the documents are destroyed.
The federal government argued before the court that survivor accounts are a critical part of Canadian history that should be maintained.
"There is an engagement process that will begin right now of that proactive reaching-out to all of the survivors to be able to explain the facts, explain that it is still their choice," Bennett said in an interview.
"I also think if more and more individuals ... can be made aware if the individual puzzle pieces drop out of the pattern, that you won't be able to really track this terrible chapter in our history."
Residential school students provided details of physical, sexual and emotional abuse as part of an independent assessment process designed to provide compensation — a program resulting from a 2006 legal settlement designed to document the legacy of the schools that operated for more than a century.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said negotiators of the settlement agreement intended the assessment process to be a confidential, private and that claimants and alleged perpetrators relied on assurances of confidentiality.
Under the process, claimants disclosed intimate personal information outlining his or her request for compensation.
Ry Moran, the director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said Tuesday many survivors were in tears following the Supreme Court decision and felt the ruling was "another blow to the truth."
"While very important issues of privacy and confidentiality are paramount for them ... I think the overriding principle that was important to them was the truth about what they had to endure in the schools and what they had to endure, frankly by the process in and of itself," he said.
Survivors have to be fully informed of their rights, he said, because the power of the records cannot be overstated.
"The truth contained within those records is exceptionally important," Moran said.
Survivors do not deserve to go through this, he added.
"This should have been dealt with better," he said. "I find the whole thing very regrettable and I really am saddened by the fact this is going to be yet another painful process for survivors after they've already gone through so much."
—with files from Jim Bronskill
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press