TORONTO - Sensitive testimony from survivors of Canada's notorious residential school system should be kept for 15 years then destroyed, an Ontario court has ruled.
In a decision released Thursday, Superior Court Justice Paul Perell said the time should be used to see whether those involved might agree to have their records transferred to a new national archive.
"During the 15-year retention period, there shall be a court-approved program to advise the survivors of their choice to transfer some of the documents instead of having (them) destroyed," Perell wrote.
The justice said that destroying the documents is necessary to protect the confidentiality and privacy of the information, and to safeguard the assessment process itself.
If survivors want their records kept, the material will have to be redacted to protect perpetrators or other third parties.
The documents in question relate to compensation claims made by as many as 30,000 survivors of the Indian residential schools under an agreement that settled a class-action suit against the federal government.
Many of the records contain heart-rending and emotional accounts of sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
The head of the compensation assessment process, backed by a privacy expert, argued the material was intended to be confidential and should be destroyed once the claims are processed.
Others, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or TRC, called for the documents to be preserved to ensure as complete a historical record as possible.
In an interview, Julian Falconer, lawyer for the commission, expressed cautious optimism but said much will depend on the process to educate claimants about their choices.
"The TRC has maintained from the outset that it was of crucial importance that claimants have a choice, that they have an opportunity to exercise informed consent about the fate of their records," Falconer said.
"The (commission) remains committed to protecting history."
Perell said the court would work out details of the notice to claimants at another hearing.
The head of the adjudication process, Dan Shapiro, said in a statement he was pleased with the decision.
"The court has issued a clear statement confirming the privacy of claimants and others identified in compensation claim records," Shapiro said.
"This will be a huge relief to the thousands of claimants who have appeared at our hearings fully expecting that their accounts of the abuse they suffered at Indian residential schools would not be made public without their consent."
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were forced to attend residential schools over much of the last century as part of government efforts to "take the Indian out of the child.'' Many suffered horrific abuse at the church-run schools.
Materials collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which also heard from thousands of survivors, are to be housed at the new National Research Centre at the University of Manitoba.
Ry Moran, head of the archive, fretted that the voices of thousands of survivors would forever be silenced if their testimony was destroyed.
But Perell found that if personal information from the assessment process was released — even by mistake — it would be a "grievous betrayal of trust" that would "foster enmity and new harms."
Destroying them, he said, is what the parties agreed to and would more likely foster reconciliation.