TORONTO - Years of mounting frustration over access to government records has prompted the commission of inquiry into Canada's residential school system to turn to the courts for help, The Canadian Press has learned.

In court filings, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission accuses Ottawa of stymying requests for documents the inquiry says are vital to its core mandate: "delivery on truth, reconciliation and ultimately healing."

Documents filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice show the commission worries that Ottawa's alleged intransigence will make it impossible to complete its work as required by July 1, 2014 and within budget.

"If the parties, through incompetence, delays or deliberate stonewalling (or a combination thereof) sabotage the work of the commission, then Canadians are certain to forget (and never fully learn) what has happened," the commission's factum states.

The application asks the court to clarify the government's obligations under a settlement with victims of the Indian residential school system that set up the commission led by Justice Murray Sinclair.

"The commission is taking this step very reluctantly and with a sense that it has been left with no alternative," Sinclair said in a statement.

Under the agreement, the government of Canada and churches are obliged to provide all "relevant documents in their possession or control" to the commission.

Court filings show years of government squabbling over the word "relevant."

For its part, the government maintains it has done its best to co-operate, providing one million documents already.

A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the government was "committed to bringing closure" to the legacy of residential schools.

"Canada aims to disclose all of its remaining documents relevant to the TRCs mandate by June 30, 2013," Jan O'Driscoll said in a statement Monday.

The commission says it would cost far more than its entire $60-million budget if it is forced to find and digitally organize the materials still in federal archives by itself.

"What is at stake here is control over history," lawyer Julian Falconer, who represents the commission, said over the weekend.

The Superior Court has set aside two days later this month for Stephen Goudge, a justice with the Ontario Court of Appeal, to hear the case.

The residential school system, which ran from the 1870s until the 1990s, saw about 150,000 native kids taken from their families and sent to church-run schools under a deliberate policy of "civilizing" First Nations.

Many students were physically, mentally and sexually abused. Some committed suicide. Mortality rates reached 50 per cent at some schools.

In the 1990s, thousands of victims sued the churches that ran the schools and the Canadian government. Following settlement of the suit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a historic apology in June 2008.

"There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever prevail again," Harper said.

"You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time, and in a very real sense we are now joining you on this journey."

The $1.9-billion settlement also led to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to research what had occurred and to make recommendations.

Part of the commission's mandate is to help in a process of reconciliation, while yet another is the "creation of a legacy" that includes collection of records, taking statements from those involved, and classifying and preserving the materials.

A national research centre was also to be set up as a permanent archive.

Affidavits filed in support of the application show the government only started providing the material — an initial 38,000 documents — in April 2010.

However, it took until November 2011 — about six years after Ottawa first signed the settlement in principle — for the government to hand over the bulk of what's been provided so far.

In an interim report issued in February, Sinclair took the government to task for its lack of co-operation — to little effect.

"This is a court-ordered settlement and it seems odd that the commission now has to go to the courts to get access," said Jean Crowder, New Democrat aboriginal affairs critic.

"Why is the government afraid of letting a little sun shine on our history?"

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ABORIGINAL PROTESTS: FROM OKA TO CALEDONIA
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  • Oka Crisis

    Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Quebec, Saturday September 1, 1990. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen)

  • Oka Crisis

    A warrior raises his weapon as he stands on an overturned police vehicle blocking a highway at the Kahnesetake reserve near Oka, Quebec July 11, 1990 after a police assault to remove Mohawk barriers failed. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)

  • Oka Crisis

    A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990. The vehicle was one of two positioned a few metres away from the barricade causing a breakdown in negotiations. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw)

  • Oka Crisis

    A Mohawk Indian winds up to punch a soldier during a fight that took place on the Khanawake reserve on Montreal's south shore in 1990. The army broke up the fight by shooting into the air. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (CP PHOTO)

  • Ipperwash

    Two aboriginal protesters man a barricade near the entrance to Ipperwash Provincial Park, near Ipperwash Beach, Ont., on Sept. 7, 1995. (CP PHOTO)

  • Ipperwash

    Ken Wolf, 9, walks away from a graffiti-covered smoldering car near the entrance to the Ipperwash Provincial Park in this September 7, 1995 photo. A group of aboriginal protesters were occupying the park and nearby military base. (CP PHOTO)

  • Caledonia Protests

    Caledonian activist Gary McHale (right) is confronted by a Six Nations Protester as he attempts to lead members of Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE) in carrying a makeshift monument to Six Nations land in Caledonia, Ont., on Sunday February 27, 2011. CANACE claim inequality in treatment for Caledonian residents from Ontario Provincial Police compared to that of the Six Nation population. They planned to plant a monument of six nation property to demand an apology from the OPP, but were turned back by protesters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

  • Caledonia Protests

    First Nations people of the Grand River Territory stand with protest signs as they force the redirection of the Vancover 2010 Olympic Torch Relay from entering The Six Nations land Monday, December 21, 2009 near Caledonia, Ontario. The Olympic torch's journey across Canada was forced to take a detour in the face of aboriginal opposition to the Games, with an Ontario First Nation rerouting its relay amid a protest from a splinter group in the community. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley)

  • Caledonia Protests

    Six Nations protesters guard the front entrance of a housing development in Hagersville, Ont., just south of the 15-month aboriginal occupation at Caledonia on Wednesday, May 23, 2007. The protest was peaceful. (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette)

  • Caledonia Protests

    Mohawk protestors block a road near the railway tracks near Marysville, Ont. with a bus and a bonfire Friday April 21, 2006. The natives showed their support to fellow natives in Caledonia, Ont. where they were in a stand off with police regarding land claims.(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)