Trudeau government continues to hide evidence of abuses at St. Anne’s Residential School

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Survivors of the notorious St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario, returned to Ottawa demanding justice on January 15.

“No child should ever have to live through the horrors that we did at St. Anne’s,” survivor Stella Chapman told a press conference. “We still stand together. We are forced to tell our individual stories and be tested over and over again. But the government will not admit the truth about what happened to us as children.”

Among many horrors, St. Anne’s stands out for its cruelty to children. The electric chair that staff used to torture students is already notorious, but that was only one of the traumas children endured there. MP Charlie Angus says the federal Justice Department has long known about these abuses.

“All this originates with the decision made by the Justice Department to sit on thousands of pages of police and court testimony they had about the abuse at St. Anne’s,” Angus told the Nation. “As per the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, they were legally obliged to provide what they call ‘Evidence Narratives’ about the various institutions and what was known of them. With the St. Anne’s case, they decided to say there was no documented evidence of abuse, which was false. The government obtained these files in 2004. That resulted in cases being thrown out, survivors not being believed. How many? We do not know. All these hearings were done in private, so there’s no record unless people come forth.”

Angus notes that among the documents the government has not turned over are the results of a five-year Ontario Provincial Police investigation from the 1990s that identified 180 perpetrators of abuse connected to St. Anne’s but resulted in “only about seven people” being charged.

“The federal government went to court to get access to that evidence so they could prepare Canada’s defence,” Angus said. “The judge at the time said okay, but this should be made available to anyone else who’s coming forward to make cases about St. Anne’s. It was that decision to sit on the evidence that’s caused everything we’re dealing with today.”

Stella Chapman – who contested this decision in Ontario Superior Court in early January – had her case thrown out in 2012 by the Independent Assessment Process. The IAP said Chapman could not prove staff knew she was being sexually abused by another student.

Her case was dismissed roughly two years before a court ordered Ottawa to release documents about a wide variety of sexual and physical abuses both by staff and other students that had been reported by survivors of the school.

“Stella is one of those survivors who came forward and said, ‘I had my case thrown out, and they had evidence!’” Angus recounted. He noted that the IAP Chief Adjudicator ultimately chose to reopen Chapman’s case, but only because she and a handful of other St. Anne’s survivors fought so hard.

The federal government, meanwhile, claimed in the British Columbia Supreme Court that, unlike plaintiffs who make their argument through judicial hearings, survivors do not have a right to “procedural fairness” in the IAP.

Two days after Chapman’s Ottawa press conference, BC Superior Court Justice Brenda Brown decided that survivors needed more than just new evidence of abuse if they hoped to continue pursuing cases that had been thrown out. The reasoning, she said, is that procedural fairness “alters the bargain” that survivors and the government of Canada reached in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Brown ruled that by reopening cases that had been thrown out, “the Chief Adjudicator and his designates have also undermined the finality of the determination of individual IAP claims and potentially extended the IAP’s completion far beyond what was contemplated by the settling parties.”

To favour finality over justice rankles Angus. “The BC Supreme Court decision is a real slap in the face to survivors,” he said. “They want this thing swept under the carpet. I’m sorry, the most important thing here is justice for residential school survivors, and until there’s justice for St. Anne’s survivors, there’s going to be no credible reconciliation in this country. That’s the message the government needs to understand.”

The government agreed not to fight Chapman anymore, Angus said, only because she had went public with her experience as a sexual abuse survivor. Other survivors have seen the lengths Ottawa will go in fighting the reopening of claims. Angus says that sends a message.

“It shows the enormous power of the Justice Department, which has fought Indigenous rights every step of the way, all the time, whether it’s fighting a teenage girl getting braces or fighting Cindy Blackstock,” he said.

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