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A group of students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba in February, 1940. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)
A group of students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba in February, 1940. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)

Residential school documents to be publicly available for first time Add to ...

Tens of thousands of records amassed during various stages of the settlement process with the survivors of Indian residential schools will be released to the public for the first time this week – shedding further light on a long and often brutal attempt by the government at forced assimilation.

The documents will be available online Wednesday at the end of the two-day official opening of the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which is located at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. They are just a small fraction of the millions of records the centre now possesses about the schools where physical, sexual and emotional abuse was rampant.

The initial batch will be relatively benign, said Ry Moran, the centre’s director who has been involved in the task of processing the material for nearly six years. The documents are not among those that are expected to be the most emotionally challenging for an indigenous population that is still recovering from the harmful legacy of the institutions.

But over the next few years, as the remaining documents are vetted and then released, they will undoubtedly become more jarring and more controversial, he said.

It was not uncommon for Indian agents or school administrators to include racist comments about the students and their families in their writings. One document, for example, describes a mother as being a drunk and a wanderer. The centre asked members of the indigenous community what should be done with it.

Their response, said Mr. Moran, was to ask about the mother’s own residential school experience and what effect it may have had on her substance abuse. And what did it mean that she was a wanderer, they asked. “Was that her going out on the trap lines for six months or going out to trap rabbits in the woods because they were so poor that they needed to get food, which was very common?”

It will be the job of the centre to put that type of material into context and to ensure that it is presented in a respectful way with the support of the indigenous communities, Mr. Moran said.

Marie Wilson, one of the three members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – which made 94 recommendations for resetting the relationship between Canada and its indigenous peoples following the period of the residential schools – said she hopes the centre will safeguard all that has been learned about a sad but important chapter of Canadian history.

“We want everything that has come forward, which so many Canadians have told us they knew nothing about, to stay in a public and accessible way so that we don’t slide back into either ignorance or amnesia,” Dr. Wilson said.

Most of the former students who made statements before the commission gave their consent to have the material made public – even in cases where they had not shared the stories with members of their own families, she said. “Some survivors said directly to us, ‘I want the country and the whole world to know what happened to me,’” she said.

The initial batch of records to be released by the centre has been culled from a massive database created by the federal government, retrieved from the storage rooms of Library and Archives Canada, or located in the possession of the churches that ran the institutions.

It includes 18,000 photographs, 200 videos of hearings before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and at least some information about each of the 139 schools that operated across Canada, for various lengths of time, between 1883 and 1996.

“This is, fundamentally, going to be about a conversation of hard truths,” Mr. Moran said.

But it will also be about learning, he said. The hope is that the archive will be used by teachers to help their students understand what went on at the schools, and also to give Canadians at large a deeper appreciation for the multigenerational impact the abuse has had on the aboriginal population.

“When we listen to survivors, and when the general public listens to survivors, they should feel a deep discomfort,” he said. “They should say, ‘This is really wrong,’ and they should feel emotional and they should feel kind of turned upside down and they should be asking all of those questions about ‘What the heck was going on?’ and ‘Why didn’t I know about this?’”

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