Editorial: Sealed government records compromise the right to know

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On Sept. 28, International Right to Know Day will be celebrated in 40 countries around the world. Its purpose is to “raise awareness of an individual’s right to access government information, while promoting freedom of information as essential to both democracy and good governance.” Governments shouldn’t withhold information from their people unless the people are informed enough to consent—which is an oxymoron of sorts, isn’t it. After all, whose interests do sealed government documents protect?

Right to Know Day directly links to recently uncovered information concerning the hospitalization and mistreatment of First Nations peoples throughout the 1960s. The reports of events that we are learning originally took place at the Nanaimo Indian Hospital (NIH) are disturbing and shocking in nature. The lack of government transparency surrounding this issue has allowed unconfirmed information and rumours to fill the vacuum. In the past, survivors of Canadian Indian hospitals described medical experiments on children and physical abuse.

Now allegations have surfaced that bodies are buried on the NIH site, which is adjacent to what is now Vancouver Island University (VIU). In November of 2012, Kevin Annett, an activist and former pastor of the United Church of Canada, made the claims on his blog. They have since spread, but the only public source for this information appears to be a man whose current activities include maintaining an organization that calls itself an international law court, with a mission to arrest the Pope. However, this does not categorically rule out his assertions that the subjects of failed medical experiments are buried on VIU grounds. According to Annett’s Love and Death in the Valley: Awakening to Hidden Histories and Forgotten Crimes on the West Coast of Canada, the records were either destroyed or have been sealed since 1999.

The incidents at the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, if proven true, would be on a level similar to that of the experiences faced by First Nations people at residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the issue of residential schools, which is ongoing, is a painful process, but such a process has been undertaken in many countries facing their past wrongs. On the issue of the Indian hospitals, though, the government has remained tight-lipped. Existing government records are not readily available, and requests for comment have been denied, citing pending lawsuits.

The issue reiterates the value in freedom of information. The NIH case stresses transparency, in particular—if we don’t know the truth, what do we know? If the documents will help shed light on an unjust situation, releasing them will only bring forth important issues that need to be heard. Annett’s side of the story is currently one of the only perspectives available. Few news reports have been published on the allegations, and without the means to write more stories, it’s nearly impossible to publicize the events that could very well have taken place at NIH, in the recent past.

What is needed at this point is a strong dose of the truth. There is no use hiding what happened at the Nanaimo Indian Hospital. Whatever atrocities took place there cannot be undone. After decades of silence, the honourable course of action would be to provide closure for the remaining survivors, and to allow current generations to learn from the mistakes of our past. This cannot happen without crucial information, released in a respectful manner, from an accountable government.

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