For the past year and a half, lawyer Fay Brunning has been fighting to get the federal government to hand over documents about the St. Anne’s residential school.
It’s a school that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a judge described as having the worst cases of abuse out of any residential school in Canada. Brunning, who represents survivors, says they were taken away from their parents at age five or six for 10 months a year. They were forced to eat vomit, subjected to sexual and physical abuse and put in an electric chair.
“The little ones first,” recalls Edmund Metatawabin to the Wawatay News in July. “And I was, I think, about number seven or eight, meaning I was one of the smaller ones.”
The children sat on a wooden seat with their arms strapped to a metal chair. A Brother held a wooden box with a crank ready to send the electric charge.
“Your feet is flying around in front of you, and that was funny for the missionaries,” Metatawabin says. “So all you hear is that jolt of electricity and your reaction, and laughter (of the Catholic school administrators) at the same time. We all took turns sitting on it.”
An Ontario judge recently ruled the federal government must turn over the documents, meaning adjudicators in the future will have the documents when making decisions in compensation claims under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Act. Survivors will no longer have to prove the level of abuse in each case.
“They are very relieved the justice system has worked,” says Brunning about survivors she spoke to today. “They want to believe the apology meant something.”
Brunning says because of the residential schools, survivors are still afraid of authority. For many, they are marginalized individuals and often find themselves on the wrong side of the law. “If law can work in their favour, that is probably a first.”
Here is an interview with a survivor:
St. Anne’s is in Fort Albany in northern Ontario. It was open from 1904 to 1976 and had hundreds of aboriginal children from remote James Bay communities walk through its doors. A police probe from the 1990s turned up evidence of horrific abuse, including an electric chair. A government had said Ottawa received the documents from police on an undertaking they would not be passed on to anyone. Ontario Superior Court Judge Paul Perell says the government misinterpreted its obligations and should turn over the more than 7,000 records to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The reports must also be turned over to the Independent Assessment Process, an out-of-court process for the resolution of claims of abuses suffered at residential schools.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt told Kevin Newman Live in an email the government is “pleased that the court clarified we can now disclose St. Anne’s residential school documents, and, now that we have the court’s permission, we will do so.” His office declined to answer any follow-up questions.
“(This is) a huge victory for the survivors of St. Anne’s and a complete repudiation of the Conservative government who have undermined the rights of these victims again and again,” says New Democrat MP Charlie Angus to CP.
“I feel ashamed. I grew up in northern Saskatchewan and didn’t know this was going on,” Brunning says. “I went to law school because I like to help people and this is really rewarding work.”
After a year and a half and more than $250,000 spent from Brunning’s law firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell, she is very relieved at the decision and will keep fighting for survivors.
“How do you give people back their lives,” she says. “We have to come to grips with our past.”