Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
It took referencing a dozen different sources to identify children who died at St. Boniface Industrial School, Janet La France told the Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples Sept. 20
La France is the executive director with Société historique de Saint-Boniface in Manitoba. She compiled a list of 300 First Nations and Métis children’s names who attended the school from 13 archival materials.
She identified 80 children who had died at the school or shortly after attending. Only three of those children were listed on the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s (NCTR) memorial register.
“It’s quite a messy web of things to kind of cull through, but the information is there. It’s just kind of scattered,” La France told the handful of senators via videoconference.
It was the second and last day that the senate committee was hearing from organizations that had not yet released residential school records.
Société historique de Saint-Boniface is caretaker of archival materials, with about one-quarter coming from French-speaking religious congregations.
When the society received archival documents from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, said La France, they had understood that all pertinent documents had been transferred to the NCTR. That turned out not to be the case.
On Sept. 19 and Sept. 20, the senate committee, chaired by Mi’kmaw Senator Brian Francis from Prince Edward Island, heard from gatekeepers of holders of various records that could be used to either identify children who died at Indian residential schools or locate where they were buried.
The hearing was a follow-up to recommendations included in an interim report, Honouring the Children Who Never Came Home: Truth, Education and Reconciliation, released by the senate committee last July. See our story here: https://windspeaker.com/news/windspeaker-news/senate-committee-demands-…
The senate committee invited specific witnesses to answer questions on why all residential school documents had not been disclosed.
On Sept. 19, the senate committee heard from representatives from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) and Library and Archives Canada (LAC).
CIRNAC assistant deputy minister Garima Dwivedi, with Resolution and Partnerships, said Canada had transferred more than four million documents initially to the NCTR when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was undertaking its work. However, federal departments and agencies have since identified as many as 23 million more documents related to residential schools and the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Some of those could be duplications of records already transferred to the NCTR and not all have been digitized, she said.
Canada wants to be respectful, she said, not to be driving the process and it doesn’t want to overlook elements or documents that might be important to survivors and communities, so it requires guidance from the NCTR’s documents advisory committee on how to accelerate the process.
That guidance “is critical so that there aren’t gaps,” said Dwivedi.
In December 2021, then CIRNAC minister Marc Miller announced a broader internal review of documents to ensure transparency and full disclosure. That work falls on the Documents Advisory Committee, which only met for the first time this past June when Cadmus Delorme was elected as chair.
“It sounds to me like this might take quite considerable time, some number of years for this (advisory) committee to do its work,” said Senator David M. Arnot.
Jasmine Bouchard, assistant deputy minister with Library and Archives Canada, said this past summer LAC had transferred 40,000 pages to the NCTR on top of the initial two million pages transferred under the TRC.
“It’s still early in the initiative, specifically at the identification stage. We are active. We believe that it will take about two more years to complete,” she said, adding they were having discussions with NCTR for the “progressive transfer of as many records as possible.”
Not everybody has the same access to records that are not held by the NCTR, said Ryan Shackleton, CEO with Know History. His historical research firm is doing more and more work with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people who are searching for their children.
While he has held “departmental researcher status” for various government departments, which allows him to access to all of a department’s files, Indigenous people doing their own research don’t have that status and it slows their work down considerably. And once they get those files, said Shackleton, much of the information is redacted or blacked out.
Privacy legislation, whether federal, provincial or territorial, along with what documents are deemed relevant, have also caused issues in what can be accessed and by whom.
Chief coroners for Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories indicated that they also faced challenges in providing relevant materials to families. Challenges arose with where coroners’ records were archived and having the names of the children to do searches. Children who died of diseases or infections, something that commonly occurred in residential schools, weren’t files that usually went to coroners.
Dirk Huyer, chief coroner for Ontario, said that while his office had provided the NCTR with a list of names of children they had identified, the files had not been sent. He said that was “a gap” that was now being rectified.
Huyer and N.W.T. chief coroner Garth Eggenberger contended that existing legislation allowed their offices wide access to the records families needed to trace their children.
Huyer said that support was provided through the Ontario Coroners Act. Eggenberger said he had “discretion” under the N.W.T. Freedom of Information Act, but it had to be done on a one-on-one basis.
Quebec’s chief coroner Andrée Kronström said the Quebec government had recently created a secretariat for First Nations and Inuit and that the secretariat was helping Indigenous peoples access records on their children.
Francis wondered if there would be a benefit to having a cross-jurisdictions body that would work with coroners and other records keepers to help Indigenous families get answers about their lost children.
While Huyer and Eggenberger agreed to such a body in principle, they both had reservations that it could turn into another bureaucratic construct that families would have to navigate.
Kronström instead suggested that agreements that would allow information to flow freely across jurisdictions would be “more flexible because you don’t want to weigh down the system…by creating another organization.”
Also appearing before the senate committee as witnesses was individual researcher Edward G. Sadowski and representatives from the Royal BC Museum.
No witnesses had to be compelled, said Francis, something he had promised to do last July if the committee’s invitations were not met with favourably.
However, due to technical issues, witnesses representing the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in Saskatchewan and the Deschâtelets-NDC Archives (the historic and administrative records of the Oblate missionaries) were unable to participate.
They will be rescheduled, said Francis, along with additional witnesses, which could include Delorme, as the senate committee continues its study.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.