Raymond Frogner is the head of archives for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Canada’s Supreme Court has acknowledged that Canadian governments and Christian organizations weaponized education to govern and forcefully assimilate Indigenous peoples through a system of residential schools. Seven generations of Indigenous children endured unconscionable physical, emotional and sexual abuse, poor health care, deficient educational standards, inadequate shelter, chronic malnutrition and disproportionately high rates of death.
And yet there are still commentators who deny or question the trustworthiness of the records, the transparency of the research and even the merit of investigating the residential school experience.
This prevents understanding, and must be addressed.
Detractors have stated that both federal and provincial governments kept careful records around the deaths of children sent to residential school. They claim government offices delivered, years ago, almost all these records to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) or, later, to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) – and that the Centre is not making these records available.
This is false. The NCTR is still negotiating with governments in Saskatchewan, Quebec and the Northwest Territories to acquire their vital statistics records, including coroners’ reports. These are the records that most clearly indicate the death of a child.
None of the schools identified by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) have a complete set of admission registers, quarterly returns, or discharge records. These records trace the life of a child at residential school, but it was common practice for schools and government offices to destroy them.
In addition, records from schools run by the Catholic Church are almost inaccessibly scattered in parishes and other offices across the country. To date, the NCTR has consulted more than 105 private-records repositories to find residential school records of Christian denominations, and is still working to acquire relevant records from religious entities.
These information gaps challenge researchers and communities searching for the final destiny of lost relatives.
Schools also inconsistently recorded children’s names. During admission, children were assigned a number, with a European name replacing their Indigenous names. The NCTR holds records of students with more than 15 different recorded versions of their names.
The NCTR is filtering a maximal list of names, to arrive at a more definitive list. But the records’ inconsistency guarantees that a comprehensive list of names of children who attended residential schools, and who was lost, is unachievable.
Meanwhile, some commentators have portrayed residential schools as rewarding sites of learning with pleasant extracurricular activities. Some have cited examples of children enjoying cultural events and sporting competitions to prove the schools’ benign character.
There are, of course, happy anecdotes. But for every one, there is a tenfold experience of trauma. For example, in 1970, the Long Plain Residential School Glee Club was sent to the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan, where, dressed in false regalia, they were recorded singing O Canada and other settler anthems in Indigenous languages. But those students also remember their return to Long Plain, where they suffered corporal punishment, solitary confinement, and restricted meals for speaking their languages.
The reality of the schools is more accurately portrayed in the unconscionably high death rates of residential schoolchildren across the country and the addiction, unemployment, and suicide experienced by traumatized survivors.
The NCTR has so far identified 4,135 deaths of students who attended a residential school, and more will be added in an upcoming inclusive report. With the guidance of Indigenous communities, the NCTR constructed a memorial website to honour and commemorate these losses.
Some deniers have misunderstood the meaning of this memorial. They have found burial sites of children named on the website, and noted that some died in their home communities.
However, there were children who were sent home and died shortly afterward – or as the TRC darkly phrased it, “sent home to die.” The website thus includes children who passed away within approximately a year of discharge.
The site’s purpose is to commemorate loss, and it is the families left behind who determine the respectful and appropriate acknowledgment of this loss. Our goal is an ongoing and true record of this loss in its totality.
The NCTR holds more than 7,000 statements from school survivors. These are personal gifts – vulnerable expressions of school traumas offered with muted dignity. But the survivors have not been acknowledged and honoured; instead, they have been marginalized in our colonial forums of culture and law. Deniers would prefer to forget them.
We choose to remember these events because they are a significant part of our national history, and because deliberate acts of remembrance acknowledge our common humanity. For we are what we choose to remember – but also what we choose to forget.