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Raymond Frogner, head of archives at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.Handout

A collection of records held by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Rome, including personnel files and hundreds of black-and-white photos pertaining to residential schools in Canada, offers “another piece of vital information” for the identification of missing Indigenous children, says the head of archives at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Raymond Frogner was granted access in mid-July to the Oblate General Archives, where he spent five days conducting a preliminary assessment. He was not permitted to bring back any hard copies of the documents.

He hopes that trip and last week’s papal visit open up opportunities for further collaboration: To digitize and share the Oblate General Archives’ records and to access all relevant files there – including administrative files, which could shed light on the policies that governed priests and nuns at residential schools.

He also hopes the religious order will consider returning some of the materials to the Indigenous communities whose members are depicted in the photos or are the subjects of reports.

Pope Francis says genocide took place in Canada’s residential schools

“This would be an example of reciprocity and something that would work toward reconciling the relationship between the Catholic Church and Indigenous communities,” he said.

Instead, “they still do have the position that they are a private archive, not public.”

He estimates there are 700 to 1,000 relevant photos in three filing cabinets in the collection. They are from the early 20th century, sent to Rome by priests who were working at residential schools. The pictures depict children and activities at the schools, as well as the surrounding areas; some are of the Kamloops and Cowessess schools, sites where probable unmarked graves have been located. The children are unnamed, but Mr. Frogner believes the photos could be brought to communities to help identify them.

“This could add additional information, especially on children that have gone missing and we don’t have any evidence of their final destination. So this is just another piece of vital information in the lives of these children.”

Personnel records dated as far back as 1815 also shed light on the life of priests at the schools. Though abuse is not directly mentioned, Mr. Frogner said, there are oblique references to problems.

“Sometimes it’s mentioned that a priest has anger issues and has difficulty with children. There’s never any direct discussion of a priest sexually abusing a child or anything like that,” though there is evidence that some priests with bad reputations were reassigned to various locations.

Previously, some Catholic entities, including the Oblates – which ran the majority of the Catholic Church-run schools – were reluctant, slow or unwilling to share key historical documents with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, experts say. This has shifted in the past year, after the discovery of the probable unmarked graves last year put pressure on the church to respond.

The documents, including diaries, pictures, narratives, letters and ledgers, are crucial to understanding who the children were and what happened to them. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has documented 4,120 children who died or did not return from the schools – a number based on a careful review of just a third of its records. Mr. Frogner estimates the full count will be thousands higher.

Some Catholic records are still missing. Mr. Frogner, who is based in Winnipeg, has been searching for pre-1945 sacramental records for Kamloops – registers held in parishes that typically contain births, baptisms, marriages and deaths. The information could help identify children who ran away from the Kamloops Indian Residential School or who went missing and later got married. “No one can tell me” where they are, he said. “That is a big gap, to my mind.”

“It’s just another piece of the puzzle to try and find destiny for these lost children.”

He said the Oblates seemed open to the prospect of digitizing and sharing the materials in their archives, though a formal agreement has not been signed. He hopes to return to Rome to assist in the digitization process.

A spokesperson for the Oblates in Rome told The Globe and Mail that they are willing to share the materials. “The general archives will share with NCTR all the documents related to the residential schools that have been/will be identified by the centre,” said Shanil Dinuka Jayawardena in an e-mail. He didn’t say whether they would share copies or materials with Indigenous communities directly, but said the “general archives remains committed to work closely with the NCTR specially in the process of digitizing and transferring the files.”

Tiffany Prete, an assistant professor at the University of Lethbridge who has researched the history of residential schools on her home reserve, the Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) in southern Alberta, has had a hard time accessing her own family’s records.

“It’s a very odd situation to know that there are records about your family members and your ancestors but not have the ability to actually take a look at those records,” she said. Though access has improved in recent years, some materials remain restricted. Among the files still missing: Crucial school intake and discharge ledgers that list student names and would indicate if a child died at the school.

She wants to see a greater effort, by the Roman Catholic Church in Canada and in Rome, to share historical materials with Indigenous communities directly. “Having access to those records and being able to have them in your home community, as an Indigenous person, would be wonderful. To be able to go in and to just read about what has happened, it helps to make sense of how we find ourselves in our present circumstances today.”

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