The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), a commission tasked with uncovering the full story of the residential school system, is heading into the federal government’s archives to gather more of the 3.5 million documents related to residential schools.
At first, the federal government refused to give the TRC access to all federal residential school documents, but in January, a judge ordered the government to hand over all relevant documents.
“We want to know the truth,” said Terri Brown, a member of the Tahltan First Nation and a survivor from a residential school sytem in Whitehorse, the capital city of Canada’s northwestern Yukon territory.
“We were really like little robots doing what people told us to do. We didn’t have a choice. And whatever was conducted in there, whatever happened, as painful as it may be, we need to know that information because it can help us in the future.”
The federal government has given the TRC $400,000 to pay a small team to dig through photographs and documents from Health Canada. But those are just a portion of the close to 3.5 million federal archive documents now accessible to the TRC.
Murray Sinclair, the commission’s chair, is concerned there might not be enough time to get all the work done by June 2014, when the TRC’s mandate is supposed to be complete.
“But the question now is whether they have enough time and enough resources within the time left in our mandate,” said Sinclair.
Kathleen Mahoney, a law professor at the University of Calgary, says obtaining more documents from the federal archives is important when acknowledging this part of Canadian history.
“In the spirit of reconciliation, Canada, the churches and the First Nations should look at this together and really get to the bottom and move forward in acknowledgement that these things occurred with the motivation that they will never, ever, ever happen again.”
Stronger case for genocide, activist says
First Nations leaders and activists say documents collected the federal archives could build a stronger case for genocide in Canada.
“Even with what we have – minus the releasing documents – there is certainly enough to suggest that Canada was involved in genocidal policies,” said Bernie Farber, former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
He’s concerned the recent release of archival records wouldn’t have happened without the court order back in January. He says that could mean there’s something in those archives the government doesn’t want the public to see.
“We are hearing that the government has been kind of hoarding all the documents and giving them out very slowly to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We think that all the documents should be released.”
Faber and others, including Phil Fontain, former leader of the Assembly of First Nations, want the history of residential schools to be seen as genocide. They want the United Nations to press the federal government to officially recognize that.
Farber says First Nations could present their case to the UN as early as next month.