A Senate committee examining barriers to the release of records of deaths at residential schools heard Tuesday that federal departments and agencies should make information disclosure processes more accessible and informal.

“We heard that the privacy and information regimes cannot work if the government itself does not believe in them,” said Sen. Brian Francis, chair of the standing committee on Indigenous Peoples, who is from Lennox Island First Nation on P.E.I.

“And what is needed is leaders committed to openness and transparency who will provide guidance and clear objectives to the department and agencies.”

Last summer, the committee issued an interim report studying the work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and the special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves associated with residential schools. It offered six recommendations for the Liberal government to support the two offices and expedite access to information.

The committee also began holding hearings last fall to demand answers from organizations that have not released records tied to Canada’s residential school system.

On Tuesday, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard was asked by Nova Scotia Sen. Mary Coyle what cultural shifts needed to happen in federal departments to facilitate record releases.

“We need good government leaders that believe in open government and provide guidance and clear objectives within their department,” Maynard told the committee.

“It comes from the top. If the leaders are believing in openness and transparency, more proactive disclosure done on their website, we shouldn’t need to have access to information [requests]. Access to information requests should be the last resort for obtaining information.”

A Senator holds an eagle feather in an "orange every child matters shirt."
P.E.I. Sen. Brian Francis said a report with recommendations would be forth coming. (Laura Meader/CBC)

She noted the access to information legislation doesn’t have a public interest override.

“The justice minister, or the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, they’ve promised to be more open in respect to information. We’re still struggling, I think, in that area,” she said.

“Even though there’s a [discretionary power] in that act, I can tell you that it’s never been used.”

Sask. eHealth addresses committee 

Lorri Thacyk, vice-president, communications and public relations with eHealth Saskatchewan, told the committee that following a request from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2014 for residential school death records, Vital Statistics found that only records older than 70 years could be disclosed under the legislation.

She said six staff spent eight months manually reviewing 225,000 death records between 1898 and 1943. They provided the TRC with death records for all 19,000 children who died in Saskatchewan in that time period. She said the records did not specify children who died at residential schools.

Thacyk said the legislation would allow release of records less than 70 years old only to people like a spouse, parent or adult child. When Coyle asked if records could be released to a First Nation, Thacyk said she would have to check with someone with more legal expertise.

She noted Saskatchewan’s vital statistics act was amended in 2016 to provide the health minister with discretionary power to disclose records under unique circumstances. She said that could allow them to release death records to the NCTR that are less than 70 years old, if they had a way to narrow the request, such as lists of names or dates.  

Francis said the committee will take all the testimony being heard into consideration and issue a report with recommendations in the coming months. 



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