Canadian Residential School History: Found or Lost?

Government discord means true story of residential schools may never be known: Auditor General

Michael Woods, Postmedia News | 13/04/30 11:27 AM ETRed Deer archives

Red Deer archivesStudents, Staff and Visitors at the Red Deer Indian Industrial School, c1911. Canadians may never learn the full history of the Indian residential school system because the federal government and a commission responsible for studying the matter are at odds over how to assemble the facts, the auditor general has found

Highlights of the federal auditor general’s report

  • Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, haven’t been able to work together on assembling the documents needed to create a solid historical record of the Indian residential school system and its tragic legacy. They can’t agree on basic questions, including what documents are needed and what time period should be covered.
  • The national search-and-rescue system run by the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard is troubled by aging equipment and shortages of pilots and flight engineers. They are doing an adequate job now, but will face sustainability problems in the future.
  • The Human Resources Department needs to tighten up the way it goes after EI overpayments. The system loses more than $100 million a year to fraud and misrepresentation.
  • Revenue Canada still needs to improve the way it chases down delinquent tax accounts. It has made some progress, but still has to find better ways to track its progress in pursuing tax arrears estimated to be worth $29 billion.
  • Federal health agencies need to better co-ordinate their efforts to prevent and control diabetes. Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research have all spent millions of dollars in isolation, producing fragmented efforts and limited progress.


OTTAWA — Canadians may never learn the full history of the Indian residential school system because the federal government and a commission responsible for studying the matter are at odds over how to assemble the facts, the auditor general has found.

The federal government and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have disagreed on basic questions such as who will cover what costs, the time frame that should be covered, and which documents are relevant to the historical record, according to the report tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The result, the audit found, is that with only 15 months remaining in the commission’s five-year mandate, no one knows what’s needed to create the historical record, what remains to be done, and how much time and money is needed to do the job.

“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 Auditor General Michael Ferguson.

The government-funded, church-run residential school system isolated aboriginal children from their families and attempted to strip them of their identities. About 150,000 children passed through the schools; many never returned.

The commission, a cornerstone of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, was established in July 2009 with a five-year mandate. But disagreement and a lack of coordination plagued the project from its outset, Ferguson’s report shows.


THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian WyldAuditor-General Michael Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012.

No department was made responsible for coordinating the provision of documents to the commission until February 2010, when Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada was chosen, the report said.

Then, the government and the commission couldn’t agree on the scope of the work to be done, including what constituted “relevant documents” and where to search for them.

The federal government developed its own definition of “relevant” documents, but didn’t share it with the commission for two years, the audit found. That definition didn’t include documents at Library and Archives Canada. In January, an Ontario Superior Court judge sided with the commission in that dispute, saying Canada’s obligation extended to documents at Library and Archives Canada.

Aboriginal Affairs didn’t prepare a schedule setting out the provision of documents, the audit said. Some target dates for individual departments in 2011 weren’t met.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada hasn’t taken adequate steps to provide all relevant documents to the commission, the report found. The audit found no federal government estimate of the cost of providing documents, and no budget set. The total cost of providing relevant documents remains unknown, the report said.

The report also found the commission could not estimate whether its budget would cover its share of the cost of collecting documents.

There was also disagreement on the digitization formats and quality of the documents to be provided. The commission decided on formats for documents in July 2011, but didn’t share the formats and requirements with Canada until Jan. 2013.

Aboriginal Affairs, meanwhile, set out a less detailed description format for the digitized documents. That decision was made to save time and money, the audit found, without analyzing the needs of potential users.

In its response to the audit, the government says it will work jointly with the commission to develop a plan for providing the documents, and it will comply with the January court decision.

The commission said it is working with the federal government to determine the work that remains, but says there “remain numerous other issues related to Canada’s documents, and there is a need to consider timing and budgetary constraints.


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