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Canada accused of hiding child abuse evidence

Documents detailing abuse at schools for aboriginal children taken from their families were withheld, say victims.

Last updated: 06 Jan 2014 10:29
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Edmund Metatawabin (right) seeks documents on abuse at a church-run school [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

Toronto, Canada - When Edmund Metatawabin was five years old, he was sent to a remote church-run school for aboriginal children in Canada where he, and hundreds of others, say they faced years of abuse and torture.

Metatawabin spent about 10 years at the school, beginning in the 1950s. One morning, he says, he was feeling ill and threw up while eating porridge. He says he was slapped and told to go upstairs. When he felt better - four days later - he went back to the dining hall and was forced to eat his own vomit.

Residential school students at Fort George cemetery in November 1946 [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] 

"I was given that porridge I got sick on and I had to eat that … And if you don't eat, then you're going to get beat up some more, and you're going to get punished - and if you throw up again you're going to have to eat that too, so what choice do you have?"

Metatawabin, 66, says at times he and his classmates were forced to sit in an electric chair - either as punishment or as entertainment for the staff at St Anne's Indian Residential School, which operated from the early 1900s to 1976 in northern Ontario province

Now, Metatawabin says, the government is hiding information about the school.

St Anne's was part of a government-supported school system to "assimilate" aboriginal children. About 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families by the federal government for decades starting in the 1800s and put into church-run "residential schools".

Many suffered physical and sexual abuse and squalid living conditions, and a Truth and Reconciliation Committee recently said at least 4,000 children died - a number that could be much higher. 

Not an isolated case

Dozens of former St Anne's students are seeking documents they say will support their claims of abuse to present to private compensation hearings, in which victims tell their stories to an adjudicator.

Fay Brunning, a lawyer representing about 60 victims, says the Canadian government had been hiding evidence by withholding those documents, which include police files and transcripts from trials of alleged abusers.

There was such widespread abuse there I think they were afraid of how many claims they would get out of St Anne's.

- Fay Brunning, lawyer

"There was such widespread abuse there I think they were afraid of how many claims they would get out of St Anne's … they wanted to make sure they paid as few people as they could," says Brunning.

In 1992, Metatawabin, who at the time was chief of the community where the school had been located, helped organise a conference of former students where they shared their stories.

An investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police followed, leading to charges against seven former employees. According to the Canadian Press news agency, five of them were convicted, including for assault causing bodily harm, indecent assault and administering a noxious substance.

Brunning says many abusers escaped justice because they died before charges were brought. She says the government obtained a significant amount of police files and trial transcripts in 2003, but only admitted it had them in 2013. The government is legally obliged to provide all documents relating to abuse at residential schools, says Brunning.

She argues having these documents would greatly support a victim's story during hearings for compensation because the adjudicator would know about convictions of those accused of abuse, the evidence that was provided in court at the time, as well as the allegations made during the police investigation.

'Re-victimisation'

Brunning says former students are being re-victimised because they are being put into vulnerable positions to face powerful lawyers without all the evidence to support their claims. "There's an overall recognition [that] what happened to them is wrong - but then it's happening again. The actual knowledge of proven abuse, proven in criminal courts of law, [has] been covered up … and it's extremely unfair."

Neither the department of justice nor department of aboriginal affairs would grant Al Jazeera interviews for this report. 

However, the office of the aboriginal affairs minister emailed a statement, saying: "Our government takes our obligations under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement seriously and we continue to ensure that the government fulfills its obligations under the Agreement. In order to bring clarity to these issues, we are seeking direction from the Ontario Superior Court with respect to the Ontario Provincial Police documents. We look forward to receiving the court's decision."

In a document submitted to the court, the government says the files are unlikely to be useful for claimants seeking compensation. The government has also argued there are privacy concerns in handing over documents detailing abuse.

I can't for the life of me in 2013 understand why a government would choose to cover up the horrific abuse that happened at St Anne's.

- Charlie Angus, MP

However, Brunning says the files would be kept confidential during the private hearings of victims.

New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus, whose constituency includes the community where St Anne's was located, says there are means in place to keep a victim's privacy and the government is using such concerns to protect itself. 

"I can't for the life of me in 2013 understand why a government would choose to cover up the horrific abuse that happened at St Anne's, why they would side with the perpetrators rather than the victims," Angus says.

Metatawabin says aboriginal elders encouraged victims to tell their stories, and the community has not raised concerns of privacy in the government handing over the files. "Did we ever say anything about privacy? The government says that and that's an excuse, privacy is just an excuse … to hide everything."

Ultimately though, once the issue was brought to court in mid-December, the government did not oppose handing over the police files and trial transcripts, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on residential schools, which also requested the documents.

Brunning says while this was a major victory for victims, trust in the system has now been lost. She is asking the court to order an affidavit from the government - listing all the documents in its possession relating to abuse at St Anne's - and to set up a neutral body to monitor the process. She says there could be other files the government is hiding.

Abuse was not limited to St Anne's. In December, the CBC reported that a former supervisor at another residential school was given three years in jail for sexually abusing boys, drawing criticism from victims that the punishment was too lenient. The prosecutor had asked for 11 years in prison.

'Like little white children'

In 2007, thousands of lawsuits from former students across the country led to Canada's largest class-action settlement. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was established to provide compensation to those abused. Between the 1860s and 1990s, 150,000 aboriginal children attended these schools, which were normally run by churches but funded by the government, according to a report by the TRC. 

Residential school students in Wabasca, Alberta [Truth and Reconciliation Commission]

It states the widespread physical and sexual abuse - and loss of aboriginal culture - led to the traumatisation of generations of children, high mortality rates, low educational levels, and destruction of aboriginal families.

Metatawabin says the St Anne's staff insulted his family and appearance to erode his identity. As was common in residential schools, he was banned from speaking his aboriginal language. 

"We were supposed to come out of [a] residential school like little white children, speaking English and thinking like the way the English people think."

All nine of his siblings attended the school, meaning his father had to send a child there every year for 10 years. Each sibling faced similar abuse.

The abuse at St Anne's is considered among the worst that occurred within the residential school system. 

"It represents the most extreme examples of abuse that certainly have come to my attention so far, short of murder. It's obvious the children were tortured in horrific circumstances," says Julian Falconer, a lawyer for the TRC.

It is not known when the court will hand down a decision, but Brunning says the judge knows the issue is urgent as some of the claimants are elderly. Time has run out for others, though. Of the 150,000 children sent to residential schools, the TRC estimates just 80,000 are still living.

As for Metatawabin, he is following the advice of aboriginal elders and sharing his story so that people can better understand the struggles of his people.

"Every time I do this, it's not a threat anymore, and it doesn't get me down anymore. I do it so that [people] will learn about what [we] went through … and that when you see a person on the street, you will know they were treated very badly as a child." 

Follow Kristina Jovanovski on Twitter: @K_Jovanovski

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Al Jazeera
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