The federal government has agreed to transfer nearly one million residential school records in its possession to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), but there are questions as to whether the centre will be able to process the records in a timely manner.
“This is an important step on the journey of reconciliation,” said Stephanie Scott, executive director of the NCTR, at the announcement. “It is a step that is frankly long overdue.”
The disclosure comes in the context of intensified demands for action following the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and elsewhere.
The new documents – which supplement more than four million records disclosed in 2015 – could help bring closure to survivors and families, expose atrocities committed at the schools, and assist in the quest to discover what happened to some of the children who never came home.
Eleven school narratives pertaining to individual residential schools are among the records disclosed. These may include information such as descriptions of school activities, rolls and registers of students, descriptions of sites, and more.
Other documents had already been in the possession of the NCTR but were corrupted or otherwise unreadable. These were provided in more readable and accessible formats.
Canada circumvented its third-party obligations to religious bodies to release the records to the NCTR, an organization that is housed at the University of Manitoba and was created as part of the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
According to the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, Marc Miller, it was untenable to prioritize obligations to bodies that, alongside the Canadian government, are culpable for the residential school system.
“…It was unacceptable for Canada to sit behind third-party rights and have survivors bear the burden of that non-disclosure,” he said.
The disclosure reflects what Miller has publicly referred to as a shift to a moral, rather than legal, lens in the government’s approach to its obligations to survivors.
The government continues to hold some records that it is bound both legally and morally to withhold – narratives that individual survivors shared in order to be awarded compensation.
In some cases, remaining records that could be disclosed are still in the possession of provinces. Other governmental entities such as the RCMP, Archives Canada, and Justice Canada also have a responsibility to focus on a “trauma-informed approach to transparency and disclosure,” Miller said.
“There are going to be more quote-unquote ‘discoveries.’ That’s clear,” said Miller. “I think we have a role in ensuring that we are being as transparent as we can, ensuring that we continue to give the space to survivors to speak their truths, to ensure that those truths are not denied.”
On Monday, the government announced funding of more than $10 million to assist the Survivors’ Secretariat at Six Nations of the Grand River in a search for unmarked burials in the vicinity of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, the founding of which predates confederation and which operated for 136 years.
So far, evidence has been found that children from 22 First Nation communities were taken from their families and forced to attend the institution.
Kahnawake is among these.
The search is expected to take years and will cover 600 acres. It will include the Mohawk Lake, and the Mohawk Canal.
“That’ll be a large undertaking, and their findings I don’t doubt will be quite shocking to Canadians,” said Miller.
The amount promised is less than the $8 million per year that had been requested. According to the executive lead of the Survivors’ Secretariat, Kimberly R. Murray from Kanesatake, her organization was told a maximum of $5 million per year could be provided to a single community.
She said Miller has indicated the government will stay in conversation with the Survivors’ Secretariat as the work unfolds.
In addition to funds for this work, access to records is a key concern for Murray and the Survivors’ Secretariat.
“I would say the number one most important piece of evidence to help us find the children is first the survivors themselves, and then secondly is the historical records,” said Murray. “Especially if we get to the point where we have to identify people.”
Some records are held by third parties, but some records the organization cannot access are in the possession of the NCTR and have been for years.
Murray, the former executive director of the TRC, has pressed the NCTR for the records. Although one of her first actions upon starting her current job in August 2021 was to request access, the issue has still not been resolved.
Of more than 14,000 records relating to the Mohawk Institute, only about 500 are posted online. The rest are not accessible to the Survivors’ Secretariat.
Among the inaccessible documents are a number of survivors’ statements for which survivors signed consents, according to Murray.
“Those are public documents, and they’re not providing them,” she said.
She suggested the under-resourced NCTR has not yet gone through the documents, and this is why they are not available.
Murray is currently getting a memorandum of agreement signed by the local chief and Council that will be sent to the NCTR, which will hopefully then allow the researchers to access the documents. Yet this will still not enable survivors or communities to access the records and seek from them the closure they need.
“I watched the announcement, and I thought, ‘Yeah, everyone’s all excited, but get in line people,’” said Murray. “Get in line with the National Centre. … They haven’t made the five million that they have accessible. Great – they’re going to get even more records to make inaccessible.”
In Murray’s view, the records should be given directly to communities, which she believes can make use of them more quickly and fully.
“This is just an easy way to pass the buck, so it’s no longer Canada,” said Murray. “Right now, it’s on the National Centre, and now they’re under all the pressure.”
She knows Scott and the NCTR want to process the records but believes they’re bound by the university and by legislation.
“The National Centre was supposed to be an Indigenous archive, and quite frankly, it’s not,” she said. “It’s an archive full of records about Indigenous people.”
The NCTR, for its part, characterizes the process as prudent, cooperative, and survivor-oriented.
“Through our records access request process, we have provided some records already to the Survivors’ Secretariat, and we continue to collaborate together to develop a process for swifter records access,” wrote the NCTR in responses provided by a spokesperson.
“We don’t have a timeline to share today, as this process takes time and care. We also want to respect the privacy of Survivors. We have close relationships with Survivors, and we will be sure to share information with them, their families, their communities, and all Canadians as we learn more.”
The NCTR said it will continue to push the government for records and for the TRC’s calls to action to be fulfilled.
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.