OTTAWA - The Supreme Court of Canada says records detailing the abuse of former residential school students can eventually be destroyed.

The unanimous high court ruling today brings clarity to an issue that pitted the privacy of victims against the importance of documenting a dark chapter in Canada's relations with Indigenous Peoples.

Students provided accounts of physical, sexual and emotional abuse as part of an independent assessment process to provide compensation -- a program that flowed from a major 2006 settlement agreement.

The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that said the sensitive material should be destroyed after 15 years, though individuals could agree to have their stories preserved at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.

In its reasons for the decision, the high court said the negotiators of the settlement agreement intended the assessment process to be a "confidential and private" one, and that claimants and alleged perpetrators relied on these confidentiality assurances.

The Assembly of First Nations had told the Supreme Court that overturning the Ontario Court of Appeal's decision would allow another breach of trust on the very same vulnerable people who were abused at residential schools as young children.

For over a century, tens of thousands of Indigenous children were required to attend residential schools, primarily run by religious institutions and funded by the federal government. Students were not allowed to use their languages or cultural practices.

The federal government unsuccessfully argued the documentary record must be fully preserved to ensure what happened is never forgotten.

It said federal laws governing access to information, privacy and archives provide the proper balance for safeguarding the records of historical value while protecting individual privacy and confidentiality.