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Flowers, shoes and toys sit on the steps of the main entrance of The Mohawk Institute , a former residential school for First Nations children, in Brantford, Ont., on June 27, 2021., to honour the 215 children whose remains were discovered in a mass grave at a former residential school in Kamloops.Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ontario says it has found about 1,800 death registrations of school-aged Indigenous children that it will release to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, amid growing calls for governments and churches to hand over records that shed light on the residential-school system.

The province says it will transfer the documents within the next few months. This would make it just the third province to do so, despite years of requests for the records, according to the NCTR.

Demands to release provincial records go back at least six years, when the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on chief coroners and provincial vital-statistics agencies to identify all records of “deaths of Aboriginal children in the care of residential school authorities and make these documents available to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.”

So far, only B.C. and Alberta have fully complied, according to Raymond Frogner, the NCTR’s head of archives. Other jurisdictions have produced some records, but Mr. Frogner said the responses remain incomplete.

The pressure to disclose has mounted since the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced last spring that more than 200 unmarked graves had been located at the site of the former residential institution near Kamloops, B.C. The revelation prompted other entities to promise a broader release of records, including the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, operator of 48 schools across the country.

“It’s unfortunate that it took such a dramatic event to really expedite, finally, the process,” said Mr. Frogner. “Because it seemed to be in kind of an administrative stasis there for a very long time. When the gravesite events started to happen, you could see there was a noticeable increase in the level of activity to produce these records.”

He hopes to sign a memorandum of understanding with Ontario in the next week or two and take possession of the documents in the next two months.

The 1,800 death registrations span the past 70 years and are held by the Office of the Registrar General, the agency responsible for recording all births, marriages and deaths in Ontario.

A search of those records for possible residential-school students began toward the end of 2016.

Since then, the government “has been actively working with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to prepare the documents for release,” said Ellen Samek, spokeswoman for the Registrar General, in an e-mailed response.

Mr. Frogner said Ontario’s record search took so long partly because death certificates don’t show whether children attended a residential school. The province could only narrow its search to school-aged Indigenous children.

“This isn’t a final list of certificates of death or anything like that, not at all,“ he said. “We will go back to this. And it’s partly because of the vagueness of the documentation to begin with.”

He hopes these records will provide further insights into the identities of the children and how many died, and give some information to families who were never properly informed of their missing loved ones.

The announcements of the findings of unmarked graves by several Indigenous communities have highlighted how much researchers don’t know about the fatal toll of the country’s residential schools.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) put the number at 3,200 students. The NCTR has since identified hundreds more, pushing the figure to 4,117.

Murray Sinclair, who served as chair of the commission, said this year that the actual number could be as high as 15,000.

The shifting estimates reflect a poorly maintained historical record. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Indian Affairs adopted a formal policy on how the deaths of residential-school students should be reported and investigated. Even then, details of deaths were not always recorded.

Later, many documents were destroyed, some during a mass effort to reuse paper during the Second World War. “There has been a considerable amount of disregard for the record of the events that happened to these children over time,” Mr. Frogner said.

Provincial death records are vital to “getting to the bottom of what happened in this country,” said Ry Moran, associate librarian for reconciliation at the University of Victoria and founding director of the NCTR.

Mr. Moran said that identifying students who perished can be complex, requiring an archival paper chase across an elaborate flow chart of jurisdictions and institutions. Students who became gravely ill, for example, could have been sent to a variety of health care settings, such as local clinics, provincial hospitals or federal Indian hospitals. “All of a sudden, they’re in different jurisdictions with different sets of records,” Mr. Moran said.

Vital-statistics agencies record deaths regardless of final location, allowing researchers to bypass the elaborate search.

Death records, collected as vital statistics, are not the only reports the NCTR is still waiting for. In a recent press release, the NCTR said it’s still missing the final versions of school narratives and supporting documents from the federal government used in the Independent Assessment Process – the claims process in which residential-school survivors testified about abuses they suffered.

Many provincial coroner’s reports, Indian Hospital records and day-school records also remain outstanding. “All of these records are crucial not only to support missing-children research, but to fully and truthfully document the residential-school system, the children who died in the schools, and the ongoing legacy,” the release said.

The TRC was created under the terms of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement, which the federal government and churches signed, in part, to avoid further litigation. All organizations that participated in the schools were obliged to release all relevant records to the commission and its permanent repository, the NCTR.

That so many records remain missing many years later “is an abject failure of those entities to fulfill their legal obligation,” said Donald Worme, former lead counsel for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a founding member of the Indigenous Bar Association.

“They write these legal agreements, and then they engage in a process of obfuscation that has lasted until now,” he said.

The time to release these records was back when the TRC was doing its work, he said. But “it’s never too late to do the right thing,” he added.

With reports from Tanya Talaga in Toronto

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