Government, aboriginals can’t agree on residential school legacy: Auditor-General

OTTAWA – It’s supposed to be a symbol of cooperation between the federal government and Canada’s aboriginal people, a way to move forward from the wrongs of the past.

But it seems the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the department of Aboriginal Affairs can’t even agree on how to cooperate.

And time is running out.

The 2013 Spring report from Auditor General Michael Ferguson found the $60 million commission and the department “have yet to agree on the work to be done” almost four years down the road.

“We are concerned that the lack of cooperation, delays and looming deadline stand in the way of creating the historical record of Indian residential schools as it was originally intended,” said Ferguson.

The commission was established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in May 2006, after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s historic apology. Commissioners were appointed in 2008 but resigned, and the current commissioners were appointed in July 2009.

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The commission’s five-year mandate is to create a historical record of the residential school system and its legacy, which includes seven national events and a research centre.

And with little more than a year to go, the report calls into doubt whether the legacy of residential school survivors will be completed when the mandate – and the money – runs out in July 2014.

The audit examined whether Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, with the support of Library and Archives Canada, have taken adequate steps to provide the commission with relevant documents. It found the two sides have been “unable to cooperate” even on a definition of what’s relevant.

“We found that the Commission and the department exchanged information on these questions, but did not agree on any of them,” the report said.

“Consequently, they were unable to define the scope of the work to be done so that Canada would meets its obligation and the Commission would fulfill its mandate,” it said.

The report concluded the commission and the federal government could not find common ground on where to search, the time frame, the formats, when the documents would be provided and who would cover the costs.

It also found the commission could not estimate whether its budget would be sufficient, and because there was no agreement about the definition of relevant, no reliable estimates of documents.

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But the government also did not estimate a total cost of providing documents and no budget had been set, it said.

“The total cost of providing relevant documents remains unknown,” the report said.

The audit shed light on a January court decision which forced the government to turn over its archival records on Indian residential schools.

In Fall 2011, aboriginal affairs took the position the government’s search for relevant documents did not extend to archival records, and left the responsibility up to the commission, under Justice Murray Sinclair.

But commission officials “strongly disagreed and reiterated the position that Canada’s obligation included searching and providing documents held at Library and Archives Canada” and in January an Ontario court judge agreed and ordered the government to turn over archival records.

Sinclair, who chairs the commission, said the government has yet to provide the commission with the Library and Archives documents as ordered by the court.

“My concern is that we’re going to be facing a huge document dump towards the end of our mandate, and then it’s a question of whether we will have the time and resources that we need,” Sinclair said in an interview.

“If not, then we may have to seek direction from the courts about what we do about that.”

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Sinclair said ultimately, the issue is about building a new relationship between the government and aboriginal people, as set out in the prime minister’s apology.

“In order for that to happen there has to be a proper foundation of truth around the legacy of residential schools,” said Sinclair.

“If there is no proper foundation of truth then the process of reconciliation is going to be severely hampered.”

While Ferguson found issues on “both sides,” he said in a news conference following the release of the report that there is a difference between government resources and responsibilities versus those of the commission.

“There definitely were some places where the government departments needed to sort of step up a little bit more to try to help lead this towards reconciliation. But that’s not to say the commission has managed everything perfectly either,” said Ferguson.

NDP MP Malcolm Allen went further – putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of the government.

“It’s an absolute travesty to the First Nations in this country that the government has not followed through on exactly it said it needed to do,” said Allen.

Allen said the government is stalling the process of getting the material to the commission.

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“The onus, I believe is on the government, based on the fact it was this House of Commons that actually made the initiative for reconciliation.”

He said the information needs to get to the commission as quickly as possible – and if not, the mandate might have to be extended.

“Clearly this government needs to now start to re-think the mandate and think about re-funding and extending it out,” he said. “We can’t not just simply end it…because we put down an arbitrary date and because of the government’s resistance to actually offer up the information. “

But Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt sounded more hopeful, saying in a statement posted on the department’s website that the government “is committed to a fair and lasting resolution” to the legacy of Indian residential schools.

He pointed to 3.5 million documents provided by the department to the commission, and said aboriginal affairs has taken steps to fulfill its obligations under the settlement agreement.

“We agree with the Auditor General that Canada and the TRC can work more closely together to ensure the objectives of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement are met, and we are working jointly with the Commission to develop a project plan to fulfill document disclosure requirements,” Valcourt said in a statement.

In the beginning, the audit said, no department was initially made responsible for coordinating documents. It wasn’t until February 2010 that aboriginal affairs was made the lead the department.

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And it was not until 2012 that 24 departments were identified as potentially holding relevant documents. The audit said aboriginal affairs did not prepare a schedule that clearly set out how Canada would fulfill its obligations over five years.

Between 2009 and 2012, aboriginal affairs obtained additional funding from the government totaling approximately $20 million, but $5 million couldn’t be spent because it was the end of the year.

Despite the lack of agreement, the audit found the government has provided thousands of documents, and has continued to collect and digitize thousands more.

But the report said “it is not possible” to assess whether the commission has or will obtain all the relevant documents it requires, what remains to be done, how long it will take and what resources are still needed.

Furthermore, the report said while the commission has selected an organization to host the national research centre, it has no detailed plan on how to transfer all the documents.

The report, which included responses from aboriginal affairs, Library and Archives and the commission, found all entities agreed with the audit’s recommendations which include defining the work to be completed, set out the schedule and budget, assess risks and monitoring progress.

With 15 months to go before the end, that includes steps from the beginning, the report concluded.

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“It remains to be seen what impacts the disagreements to date will have on achieving a fair, comprehensive, and lasting resolution of the legacy of the residential schools.”