Geraldine Shingoose was shocked when she opened a report probing what should be done to protect potential unmarked grave sites at former residential schools for Indigenous children.
Of the thousands of former students who detailed the abuses they suffered to an adjudicator tasked with determining their eligibility for compensation under the historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, only about 30 have sought to have copies of their words archived.
Shingoose — an Indigenous elder and residential school survivor — is among that small group. She said she’s heartbroken to think thousands of records will be destroyed within five years unless more survivors also request their preservation, an option she fears most are not even aware of.
“That’s history,” she said in a recent interview.
“Those are sacred stories.”
The debate surrounding the future of these records has gained momentum since more First Nations began seeking answers about what happened to the children who died and disappeared from residential schools.
Kimberly Murray says she began thinking of them after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation in British Columbia announced in May 2021 that ground-penetrating radar had detected what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The finding shocked millions, despite residential school survivors having described such places for decades.
“I always thought there needs to be one last look at those records specific to the burials,” said Murray, who previously worked as executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which spent five years investigating the residential school system.
The records in question are the product of what was known as the Independent Assessment Process, the protocol through which survivors had to access compensation for abuses they suffered as children.
It was part of the settlement negotiated between the federal government, church entities and national Indigenous groups. Under the agreement, survivors could make claims about the sexual and physical abuses they endured at the government-funded, church-run institutions, as well as “any other wrongful acts” committed by former staff and other students.
From the time the settlement was approved in 2007 until 2012, a little more than 38,000 claims were made, the majority of which were resolved through confidential closed-door hearings. In total, federal statistics show $3.1 billion was paid out.
Shingoose still recalls the questioning she received from the adjudicator and a representative from the federal government into details of the physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the Muscowequan Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, which she attended for nine years.
She left the experience retraumatized, she said, describing it as a “really, really terrible process.”
By 2014, the question of what should happen to those transcripts and supporting documents landed at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
On one side, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation — the archive established to house its records — along with the federal government, said they ought to be preserved. The chief adjudicator of the compensation process and 24 Catholic Church entities argued they should be destroyed.
The Assembly of First Nations supported the latter position. Phil Fontaine, the former chief of the advocacy organization who helped negotiate the settlement, submitted an affidavit outlining his desire to see the records destroyed unless a survivor agreed to have them archived.
He used his own story as an example. While a regional chief in Manitoba in 1990, Fontaine became one of the first leaders to speak publicly about the sexual abuse he suffered at the former Fort Alexander Indian Residential School — but in all the times doing so, he never divulged specifics.
“This is because I consider my story to be private,” his affidavit read.
While negotiating the settlement, he said he raised the need for the names of children who abused other children never to be revealed due to the harm it would inflict on Indigenous communities.
In the end, according to Fontaine’s affidavit, it was agreed the names of perpetrators would never be released and only survivors could access their own records.
Shingoose says the transcript of her hearing runs 278-pages long and blacks out the names from her Catholic-run school, which she and others have likened to “protecting the abuser.”
In the initial court case, the 24 Catholic entities argued those confidentiality provisions were the reason they waived the rights otherwise afforded in a court to mount a defence and challenge a survivor’s account.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice ultimately ordered the records to be destroyed after giving survivors 15 years to seek copies of their own files. The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the order to see them destroyed by September 2027.
In its 2017 ruling, the top court concluded promising the utmost confidentiality for both complainants and perpetrators was “inescapable” in order for the compensation process to work.
Perry Bellegarde, then the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, welcomed the ruling as “good and fair” at the time.
But one area neither the courts nor compensation process considered was the deaths and disappearances of children, says Murray, who now serves as an independent adviser to Ottawa on how to help Indigenous communities search for unmarked graves and retrieve records.
“What would they have said if … there was information about potential murders and deaths and burials, if that information was shared with the court?” said Murray, a member of the Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation.
“What would they have said about that?”
Murray says survivors talk about witnessing deaths and helping dig graves, and believes the abuse records ought to be re-examined to see if they contain details such as the name of children who died. She made the call in a progress report released last month, the same one read by Shingoose that raised concern about the lack of records being archived.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller is overseeing Ottawa’s efforts to archive additional residential school records. A spokeswoman says the minister is open to finding solutions, but underlined that Ottawa must respect the “absolute confidentiality” of the documents, as ordered by the courts.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says it supports Murray’s call to re-examine the records and believes such a process could unfold in such a way that ensures privacy.
It currently reports having 27 packages of records survivors have decided to share.
“We understand that sharing may be difficult and traumatic … so at no point do we canvass or ask for their … records,” it said in a statement.
“While we hope survivors continue to place their trust in us, it is ultimately a personal decision.”
Murray pins the fact such a small number of survivors have chosen to share their records on a lack of awareness that they can do so, and questions why such information is not more widely circulated.
“It is the worst notice program I’ve ever seen.”
Shingoose applied for her records in 2019. She provided a copy to the national archive and kept one for herself so her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren could see, she said.
It is a way of ensuring the most detailed account of her experience as a residential school survivor is not forgotten.
“I wanted to share my truth,” said Shingoose. “I want my story to be shared.”
Stephanie Taylor and Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2023.