Library and Archives Canada’s move to finally release a 98-year-old document on Ottawa’s treatment of sick First Nations children sheds a small sliver of light onto a part of Canada’s history still shrouded by the darkness of locked archives, researchers say.
Library and Archives initially refused to release the document under provisions of the Access to Information and Privacy Act that exempts files covered by solicitor-client privilege.
The 1920 document contained a request for advice from Indian Affairs along with the response from the Department of Justice on whether existing provisions in the Indian Act gave officials the power to create regulations allowing for the forcible removal of sick First Nations children.
The document was requested by researcher Edward Sadowski who filed a complaint last October with the federal Office of the Information Commissioner which opened an investigation.
A little over a week after CBC News first reported on the case, Library and Archives informed Sadowski it had reconsidered the case and decided to release the document without restrictions.
“After a more in-depth review of this Access to Information request Library and Archives Canada has decided to apply discretion to open this document which is protected by solicitor client privilege,” wrote Julie Gingras, a senior analyst, in a Feb. 9 letter to Sadowski.
Sadowski said he is still befuddled by the issue.
“I don’t know why there was restrictions on it at all,” he said.
Access to documents difficult.
Laurie Meijer Drees, chair of the First Nations studies department at Vancouver Island University, said the released file is part of a “constellation of documents” that map out the ideology, policy and regulatory decisions behind the federal government’s handling of health care for Indigenous peoples.
“There are hundreds of documents in archives that should be opened but are not, that we need to look at to get a better impression of what went on,” said Drees.
Drees said Library and Archives still keeps all records produced by the federal National Health and Welfare Department locked in their archives. The department took over First Nation and Inuit health care from Indian Affairs in 1945.
Drees said health records produced by Indian Affairs are only accessible through individual requests under the Access to Information Act.
“You can’t actually research this topic as as researcher because it could take you 100 years to get them,” she said.
Research for court case.
Sadowski was requesting the document as part of research to support a failed court application to include the Fort William Indian Hospital Sanatorium School, where First Nation students who contacted tuberculosis were sent for treatment, as part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.
Sadowski said the document reveals the steps Ottawa took to try to deal with tuberculosis outbreaks in First Nations communities, which were made worse by residential schools, while keeping costs down.
“This is a very complex issue,” he said.
“You have to look at the bigger picture in this and everything is interconnected. It was about getting rid of ‘the Indian problem.”
The document, in the form of two letters, is from the era when Duncan Campbell Scott was deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs. Scott was the architect behind amendments to the Indian Act that made it mandatory for First Nations children to attend residential schools.
Scott once stated that Indian Affairs’ goal was to find a “final solution of our Indian problem.”
The case of a young girl.
The March 27, 1920, Indian Affairs letter was written by the assistant deputy and secretary for the department who describes a report from a departmental doctor working on the Peguis First Nation.
The letter describes “the case of a young girl with tubercular spine and the case of a child with eye trouble” who can’t be “properly treated in their home but whose parents refuse to permit them to be taken to a hospital for treatment.”