More than 200 boxes of records under scrutiny by Ottawa, courts for residential school connections

·5 min read
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said his department continues to search for documents related to residential schools in Canada. (David Kawai/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said his department continues to search for documents related to residential schools in Canada. (David Kawai/The Canadian Press - image credit)

More than 200 boxes of records are currently under separate court and internal federal reviews to determine their connection to residential schools after they were found in storage facilities within the last year, CBC News has learned.

The records were discovered in Yellowknife and Vancouver storage lockers, according to information provided to CBC News by a Crown-Indigenous Relations (CIRNA) official.

As a court-appointed firm and federal officials sift through the records, CIRNA Minister Marc Miller said searches continue within his and other departments to find any documents related to the residential school era.

"The state they were found in is entirely unacceptable," Miller said in an interview with CBC News.

"It is part of this process that I continue as the minister … That work isn't complete and is still ongoing — knowing any piece of information related to that time period can help in closure and getting an understanding of the truth."

The first batch of documents, 125 bankers boxes, was found in June 2021 by the owner of a storage facility in Yellowknife who was clearing out a unit once owned by a now-defunct survivor healing group called the Healing Drum.

The owner contacted the territory's information commissioner, which then alerted the regional CIRNA office, said Andrew Fox, the Information and Privacy Commissioner for the Northwest Territories.

CIRNA officials took possession of the records in November 2021.

They found the files were related to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and the abuse compensation process known as the Independent Assessment Process (IAP).

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

Given the strict guidelines around privacy and the handling of IAP-related records, CIRNA referred the matters to two judges involved in overseeing the residential school settlement agreement. They, in turn, directed class-action management firm Epiq in January to review the files, and report back with suggestions about how the documents should be handled.

The second batch of documents, 107 boxes found in an Iron Mountain storage facility in Vancouver, were also "flagged" in the summer of 2021. The last batch of those records arrived in Ottawa in February 2022, according to information provided by the CIRNA official.

The records were once held by Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada, an agency created to deal with the multitude of civil litigation related to residential schools and the settlement agreement.

The second batch of files falls into three broad categories: hard copies of residential school records, like maps of institutions and attendance records that already existed in CIRNA's database; non-residential school records related to First Nations, such as community visits, conditions of health services and maps of remote northern communities; publicly available academic papers.

Based on an initial assessment, none of the records contained previously undisclosed information, according to the official.

"They are being kept securely as they should be … and held with the proper entities in a careful way," said Miller.

Ottawa faced calls to release records

Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck
Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck

The boxes of records were found amid the discovery of unmarked residential school graves across the country, something that triggered calls for Ottawa to release all its records related to residential schools.

In January, the minister announced his department would transfer 11 school narratives — nine that were never handed over and two that were 2016 updates — to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). The documents summarized histories compiled by Ottawa of the residential schools, along with related records, and were initially tangled in legal red tape involving Catholic entities.

Miller also announced the transfer of more than 875,000 records — totalling about 1.5 million individual pages — to the NCTR.

These records were initially transferred by the Stephen Harper Conservative government to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — created under the settlement agreement to examine and document the history of residential schools.

The Harper government provided some of these records in two hard drives with "corrupted" and unreadable files, according to details outlined in a memorandum of agreement between the department and the NCTR.

The commission, which transferred all its holdings to the NCTR, was forced to seek a court order to access historical records from the Harper government.

Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press
Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press

Miller has also issued a publicly-available directive to department officials to flag and preserve any files related to Canada's "historic harms committed to Indigenous children."

He said he is also working with the ministers of Indigenous Services Canada, Justice Canada, Public Safety, Heritage, Parks Canada and Library and Archives Canada to search for any relevant records.

"This is an expansive scan of what information is out there," said Miller.

"I won't be happy until we find all the information we possibly can. We are certainly not there."

Indian hospital records destroyed

Miller said he has also had discussions with Justice Minister David Lametti on the disclosure of residential school-related records held by the federal justice department, documents that have historically been kept tightly under wraps.

Over the years, survivors and researchers have sought to learn more about internal justice department discussions of Ottawa's legal opinions on its liability in relation to the running of the residential schools over the years.

The TRC's report also called on the federal justice department "to be more transparent and accountable to Aboriginal peoples; this requirement includes sharing its legal opinions" on Indigenous rights.

"Solicitor-client privilege, litigation privilege and all sorts of legal concepts that are invoked to prevent the disclosure of information that properly should have been disclosed are ones that are very difficult to parse through," Miller said.

"It takes people at my level and Minister Lametti's level to sometimes intervene."

Miller said there is a batch of historical records that won't yet be available for public scrutiny involving Indian hospitals and sanitariums, where both children from residential schools and adults were taken with ailments like tuberculosis. Many died at these facilities without notice provided to their families.

These records are currently part of the discovery process of ongoing class-action lawsuits, Miller said.

"It is a complex issue, particularly since we are currently in a process that is court managed as to the disclosure of documents," he said.

Miller said a "swath" of Indian hospital records were also destroyed "decades ago."

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