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Through the Connections to Kith and Kin program, Indigenous people cut off from their families can enlist the help of professional archivists to sort through Library and Archives Canada records for clues to their pasts

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Marvin Delorme – his hand tattooed with the name of a girlfriend from many years ago – gestures toward genealogical documents he's compiled with the help of the Connections to Kith and Kin program. Residential school and the forced relocation of his family kept him largely in the dark about his ancestry.Photography by Alec Jacobson/The Globe and Mail

Marvin Delorme is holding a death certificate for a child named Marvin Delorme, issued on May 11, 1963 – less than two months after this Marvin Delorme was born.

“I just found this last night,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s heavy, heavy stuff.” Mr. Delorme’s parents had always told him he’d had a twin – but as the death certificate proves, it wasn’t a twin at all. His older brother had died, and Marvin had inherited his name.

Mr. Delorme was born in Muskeg River, Alta., to a band of Métis with Cree roots. Around 1968, his family was forced to settle in Grand Cache and, like so many Indigenous people of his generation, he was taken away to a residential school. So for much of his life, he knew almost nothing about his family. But a program at the Vancouver Public Library’s Britannia branch – located in the heart of the city’s most concentrated Indigenous population – is helping people like Mr. Delorme reconnect with their heritage.

The Connections to Kith and Kin program pairs skilled archivists with community members to help comb the often-overlooked mountain of Indigenous records maintained by Library and Archives Canada. These records are often more extensive and invasive than those kept on non-Indigenous Canadians, but the documents offer Mr. Delorme and others an opportunity to collect the broken links of their lineage and piece them back together.

Bureaucrats diligently documented births, deaths, baptisms, trap-line permits and even grocery bills of Indigenous people around the country. The LAC collection is vast, comprising, according to brochures, “250 linear kilometres of government and private textual records,” along with thousands of hours of audio recordings, millions of books and five billion megabytes of digital files.

Buried in all that data was the death certificate of Mr. Delorme’s namesake.

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Mr. Delorme holds the death certificate recording his older brother's death.

Before he was taken away, Mr. Delorme remembers being somewhat nomadic, moving from place to place hunting and trapping with his family. But residential school broke him down over time, he says, and broke down his connection to his heritage, as well. Once he was old enough, he discovered big cities such as Edmonton and Calgary. “I never went back,” he says. Instead, he drifted from one city to the next, working construction and carpentry jobs until, inevitably, “I’d get in a fight, and that was it – I’d be gone.”

For 20 years, he struggled with addiction before getting sober in 2002 and training as a counsellor. He now works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, not far from the Britannia branch.

As Mr. Delorme grew roots in Vancouver, his mind started to wander back to his childhood. He yearned for home and family. When he heard about the Kith and Kin program, he jumped at the opportunity to try to retrace his steps back to Muskeg River. As he peeled back layers of paperwork, he was surprised to find that his family was still there. For the first time in decades, he phoned home. Would anyone pick up, and would they remember him?

The answer, as it turned out, was yes.

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Mr. Delorme climbs the stairs of the Downtown Eastside's Carnegie Community Centre, where he often volunteers and joins activist groups. The centre was once a public library, like the one where he studied his ancestry to reconnect with his family.

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Ariel Caldwell, librarian at Vancouver's Britannia branch, started the Kith and Kin program before the pandemic.

Ariel Caldwell is a teen-services librarian at the Britannia branch. A few years ago, she began talking with local community members about new services the VPL could offer – particularly in an effort to engage in reconciliation with its Indigenous clients. That’s when she thought of harnessing the records housed with the LAC. Everything in the archives is available to the public, but it can be challenging to navigate them without training. “We don’t acknowledge what it takes to make use of those resources,” Ms. Caldwell explains.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Caldwell turned a room in the back of the library into a gathering place, where a small group of program participants would meet one-on-one each Wednesday with a trained LAC staff member. (The program has since moved online.) Some participants show up with just their own name and the hope of finding their parents; others come armed with photographs and family documents. The staff help comb databases such as in search of clues – names they can feed into the archives system in search of documents that will lead them back into history, one generation at a time. Archivists then put in a request for the documents and bring them to the next meeting.

“I think it’s directly an act of reconciliation,” Ms. Caldwell says. “As a colonial institution, we are giving people back information that was taken from them. As a knowledge-keeping institution, that is our mandate.”

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Archivist Susanne Salzberger looks through documents at the Library and Archives Canada office in Vancouver.

Susanne Salzberger, an archivist at LAC’s Public Service Branch in Vancouver, spends hours each week poring over old documents in search of information that might help the program’s participants. “When I first started working here, I didn’t really know anything,” she says. But then she witnessed official testimony during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the stories of residential schools resonated with her own family’s history in Nazi Germany. “It finally gave meaning to what I do,” she explains. “This work moves us when we find all these horrible things going through the records.”

But Ms. Salzberger knows that even when what she finds is awful, it can be helpful, too.

So far, 75 people have directly participated in the program, but it has touched the lives of many more, as participants share what they learn with the family members they know and reconnect with those they’ve never met. “People are able to apply for legal [Indigenous] status,” Ms. Caldwell says. “People on a really personal, individual level know more about themselves because they know who their family is, and that’s priceless.”

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Vera Jones, an advocate for residential-school survivors who advised Ms. Caldwell in developing Kith and Kin, displays the the Nisga’a family tree she made with the program's help.

Vera Jones left her Nisga’a community for residential school for the first time in 1968, when she was five years old. Each of the three schools she attended took her farther and farther from her family. She tried to go home, but she never fit in, having been torn away from the fabric of the community.

She now works with the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society and advised Ms. Caldwell on how to build the Kith and Kin program. But as she attended the Wednesday meet-ups week after week, Ms. Jones started to probe her own past, looking to understand family members she hardly knew and starting to unpack some of the trauma of her own experience.

For years, the broken links to her family made her feel desperate. “Everything I didn’t know stressed me out,” she says.

She says she generally wasn’t close to her family, but she’d had a better relationship with her dad before being sent to residential school. So, she started to look for his records. At first, she couldn’t find anything. Her maiden name was Rush, and there was no record of a man by that name who matched her father.

But Ms. Salzberger tried something a little different: misspelling his name as “Russ.”

Suddenly, a wave of records came to the surface. In one, a mostly hand-written church document, her father’s name is typed as “Russ,” but the final “s” is crossed out and replaced in pen with an “h.” For a reason that Ms. Jones will probably never know, he changed his name and hers, distancing them from their past.

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One of the census records containing information about Ms. Jones's father, Abel Rush, is laid out at the LAC office in Vancouver.

With that discovery, Ms. Jones was hooked – and the more she dug, the more clarity she found. She had always felt abandoned by her parents. Now, she says, after looking into their past, she understands that they experienced trauma similar to her own residential school experience. “I understand that my mom was a survivor as well,” she says, which helped her understand the forces that strained their relationship.

She has since expanded her search to look into her late husband’s family. The two were married for barely a year when he was killed in a car crash. “Even though my husband and I were only married a short time, I feel closer to him,” Ms. Jones says with a smile. “I feel a little more content than I did a year ago.”

She has tried to bring that connection and contentment home to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Until the pandemic upended everything, the entire family would gather for a weekly meal – an experience she never had growing up.

“Look at the way my mom was treated and what happened to her – that got passed on to me,” she says. “With my kids’ help, we’re breaking the cycle. I’m closer to my family than I’ve ever been.”

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The Britannia branch is closed during the pandemic, but Kith and Kin has made the transition to virtual service.

Much like Ms. Jones’s family dinners, the pandemic shut down the Kith and Kin program, with the branch closed and much of the staff furloughed. But Ms. Caldwell and the VPL administration have been looking for ways to restart the program remotely. They tested a few options in November and December, and as of Jan. 19, they moved the entire program to Zoom.

In the meantime, Mr. Delorme started spreading the program informally to friends, helping them navigate the system online to track down their own lineages. “There’s a lot of people out here in the community who have no idea where their family is,” he says.

As for his own family, he now keeps an archive of his research – a copy of his family tree, birth certificates and other records, census data and entries from – hanging on a wall in his home. He has also reconnected with some of his living relatives, including his sisters and both his parents. “I’m talking to people I haven’t had contact with in years,” he says. “I hear their voices and it’s like I never left, even though I’ve been gone for 36 years.”

He has also rediscovered his native language, which he was banned from speaking while at residential school. But now, during calls with his family, he’s becoming immersed in it again. “It’s such a beautiful experience when you hear Cree,” he says. “When my mother or my father speaks, I just want to listen to them forever – especially my mother when she gets to telling stories. She’s got a lot of information in her head and heart.”

Once the pandemic ends, Mr. Delorme plans to return to growing his own family tree. “I’m getting to feel more grateful,” he says. “I’ve begun to feel more human, to feel like I belong.”

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Mr. Delorme sorts through documents he's printed in his genealogical research.

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