Fighting for history: Uncovering the truth of residential schools
A report from the front lines of the search for “truth” in Truth and Reconciliation, and a look at the people trying to make history accessible to aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike.
WINNIPEG—There are two sacred boxes in the offices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
One is a bentwood box sculpted from a single piece of cedar by an indigenous artist. Its panels are adorned with the mournful carved faces representing First Nations and Métis who suffered through the residential schools era, when government-sanctioned institutions systemically tried to eradicate indigenous culture, tore apart families and operated havens for child abuse.
The other box is a tall obelisk tucked away in an air-conditioned closet. Its blinking lights and bright blue screen belie the sacred stories that lie within. The archive stored on the server — more than four million letters, photographs and government records — is the life’s work of the truth commission. Where the bentwood box represents reconciliation, the black server tower holds truth.
This story is about the struggle for history. The government of Canada was responsible for the creation and administration of a system that included more than 130 residential schools spread across the country. Many were tucked into the corners of the nation, run for more than 100 years by dozens of different church groups including denominations of Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and the United Church. All of these parties kept records of the institutions they ran.
The pressure from survivors who came forward in the 1990s resulted in the largest class action settlement this country has ever seen. A multibillion-dollar compensation effort has been unfolding since 2007, when the agreement was ratified, to attempt to address some of the wrongs.
But the other component of the settlement, that which will create a lasting national memory for Canadians of the residential school system, has been fraught with challenges. The battle over information has been the subject of three separate court hearings and multimillion-dollar document collection efforts that have been bogged down in countless government departments and church basements.
Kim Murray, the executive director of the commission charged with investigating and producing a report on residential schools, has been on the front line of this struggle since 2010.
When the commission began, the Canadian government disclosed a swathe of records that were prepared for the class-action. The quality was abysmal — grainy images, poor copies of written documents and a shoddy organizational system. In order to even gain access to the documents, the commission had to take the government to court. It was the first of three times a judge would have to rule on the fate of historical documents.This time Justice Stephen Goudge found in favour of the commission, but that battle would just be the start of its problems.
“We never thought we were going to find so many records that we didn’t have because they kept telling us, ‘We went through the archives, we got everything for litigation, Aboriginal Affairs should be no problem. We didn’t leave much behind,’” says Murray. “Then we found out the mess at the archives.”
What the commission found among the not-yet-catalogued boxes shocked Murray. Some boxes had photographs without captions, dates or locations. Others had quarterly returns — valuable documents filed by churches that listed the enrolment at schools and should have already been disclosed.
The fight for information
The fight for the future Canadian history is fought in the dusty basements of churches, the darkened corners of our national archives and in the unmarked boxes that hold untold stories.
Its warriors are armed with high-resolution scanners, laptops — and patience.
The federal government holds the largest repository of residential school records, splintered throughout the various departments that played a role. Health Canada may hold records of the so-called Indian hospitals. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada may hold records of the farms that were located at many residential schools. Even Transport Canada may have relevant details surrounding the methods used to transport survivors to and from residential schools.
“Canada as a whole doesn’t even know the full extent of its involvement over the years,” says Murray, speaking in the commission’s downtown Winnipeg office.
After the original decision in 2013 that upheld Canada’s obligation to produce comprehensive archival-quality records, Murray and her team went straight to work at the location of the national archives in Winnipeg until the government could tender a document management company. The government said it would have a new team in place July 2014 to take over the work, but Murray wasn’t convinced.
“I knew they weren’t going to be ready by July. That’s when I was on the phone to the (assistant deputy minister) saying, you can’t keep me out.” She poked the wood table in the Truth and Reconciliation office for emphasis. “‘The settlement agreement says you have to give me access. And I’m coming in.’
“They knew, OK, she isn’t messing around. They knew they had to let me in.”
There are some victories
Victories have been won by the commission’s digging and fighting. The second court battle over documents concerned records from St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany, Ont. In the 1990s, the Ontario Provincial Police investigated a decades-long history of widespread abuse, and a resulting court case led to convictions of staff from the school, but the records surrounding the investigation were kept secret.
After a hearing, Justice Paul Perell ordered that the documents be disclosed to the commission. Within that bundle was third-party confirmation of a creative and sadistic punishment at the school: a makeshift electric chair used on the children. Murray says survivors have been told they’re making up that element of the story, despite widespread agreement that it happened.
“To have that corroboration outside of it coming from a survivor is really important for those naysayers,” she says.
With the commission’s work, a murky history often reduced to averages and approximations is becoming sharpened. Their researchers are trying to figure out how many children died, were killed or went missing during the residential schools era.
The common figure used in government materials and media reports says that about 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in residential schools. So far the commission has counted 179,000 names from its records, including variations on names. (For example, both Sam George and Samantha George would be counted.) Out of that, it has matched the names of 4,000 children with death certificates from the provinces.
Those figures don’t include the bulk of registrations from prior to 1920, where the records are handwritten rather than typed. It also only counts deaths from the handful of provinces that Murray was able to get records from — Ontario, she says, has yet to produce death certificates.
“There are lots of holes. Obviously it’s something that’s going to have to continue. The National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is going to have to continue the work because we’re not going to get it done,” says Murray.
The research being done by the commission is the raw material that it will use for a sweeping report on the history, legacy and impact of residential schools, due to be released June 2015. Once the report is released, the commission will cease to exist and responsibility for the history of residential schools will be in the hands of the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
It’s the loose ends that weigh on Murray’s mind as furniture and data flow from one office to the other. Despite having more than four million records, there are still more truths to uncover.
Many of the Catholic entities that ran the school have refused to disclose records, and the staff at Library and Archives Canada is just beginning its own dive into the archive. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, parties have an obligation to give information to the commission, but once it vanishes, that obligation will vanish too.
“I know that we do not want to disappear as a (commission) without there being some legal obligation on the entities that have not complied to produce their documents” to the National Research Centre, she says.
“We won’t disappear without making sure something’s in place, because people shouldn’t be rewarded by not complying.”
Still on the horizon is perhaps the biggest fight yet for the history of residential schools. Justice Perell ordered in August that all of the transcripts from approximately 38,000 individual settlement hearings constituting the largest oral history of residential schools should — after a 15-year waiting period — be destroyed.
Ted Fontaine wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions that came forth on the day in November 2008 when he gave his testimony.
“I walked in cocky and thinking nah, I can handle this,” says Fontaine, speaking in the modern temporary office of the research centre. “Piece of cake.”
The 72-year-old former chief of Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba is not one to falter in the face of a tough situation.
During a break two and a half hours into his testimony, “I staggered out of that meeting, my wife was waiting for me — she was in shock, started crying and (she) led me away” to a healing room, Fontaine says.
“That’s how sudden and devastating some of the information that came out was. There’s no way I want that destroyed.
“There’s a lot of things in there that people within that group heard, which in some cases is the very first time this surfaced even from an individual because in the process of disclosing something, something else would come up. That’s why they were so long — mine was about seven hours 45 minutes.”
The fate of the testimony of survivors still remains to be seen. Justice Perell has ordered the destruction of evidence given in the individual hearings, but the notice program, designed to allow survivors to choose whether or not their evidence is placed in the archive, will determine how much of the history goes to an incinerator. As with everything in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement process, it’s complicated. A court still has to agree to the scope and nature of the notice program, which will encounter problems like survivors who testified and are now deceased.
With the commission shuttering its offices, the research centre at the University of Manitoba will be the organization that takes up the banner of history as the notice program and other collection efforts unfold.
For now, the National Research Centre offices look more like a tech startup than an archive. In the square microchip of a building, sleek monitors flash decades-old church records at three masters students who are the early team sorting the haystacks of information into smaller piles — grinding the grist to a more manageable form.
“There’s so much fascinating stuff in the collection,” says Ry Moran, executive director of the centre. “You just need to have a basic curiosity and it’s our obligation to make sure that that curiosity can be satisfied with as slick and effective tools as possibly can be.”
Moran talks with the flowing cadence of a venture capitalist, using terms like “user groups” and “meta-data,” flitting from one idea to the next. He comes from a past working as a musician and as a researcher attempting to preserve disappearing aboriginal languages. His current position is a job that straddles the line between past and present.
The collection as it stands right now is useful only to those skilled in the arcane art of sifting through archives. But in the hands of Moran’s team, it will be transformed into something that the general public and — importantly — survivors can use. Reams of scattered federal records will be searchable by school or by name. Photos will be grouped under the proper headings. Context and history added to otherwise mundane pictures of buildings and rooms.
This work is exceedingly technical and, thanks to the University of Manitoba’s archives degree program, performed by skilled experts. The records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — obtained from more than 100 sources — must be catalogued properly according to modern archival standards.
“It’s a mega-project,” says Moran. Library and Archives Canada “could probably service the equivalent of building a small little house, where we were going and building a stadium.”
The project also faces legal hurdles. Manitoba’s privacy legislation has proven too restrictive for the archive’s needs. Important records like photos may be kept secret because they have the potential to identify living persons. To solve this, Moran and his team are working with political parties in the province and are in the midst of drafting a bill — dubbed the NRC Act — that would loosen privacy restrictions in accordance with the wishes of survivors.
“If it’s in a place like this, this is really accessible,” Fontaine says. “If it’s only for academics, you’re not going to get too many survivors coming. Hopefully people that are up there will be wise. Some of them are wise already,” he adds, in reference to Moran.
The next step for the research centre is to move into its new space. While the archive is entirely digital, the University of Manitoba has set up a physical space for survivors and others to go and browse the collection.
The space, currently under construction, will be housed in Chancellor’s Hall, an august heritage building on the shores of Winnipeg’s Red River.
While hammers are still banging out the future centre, Moran has a vision in mind for each room: a reading room where “the coffee is always on”; a private room for healing and reconciliation; iPads and print-on-demand to allow survivors and visitors to take pieces of the archives home with them.
The future history of Canada
The research centre was born out of a three-day conference that brought together survivors, academics, historians and officials to lay the groundwork for the future of this piece of Canada’s history.
Phil Fontaine, former grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations and one of the survivors who led the residential school class action, says the history must not stay confined to the centre.
“We have to reach out to the country. We have to reach out to Canadians,” said Fontaine (who is Ted’s cousin) at the 2011 conference. “This is about writing the missing chapter in Canadian history. This is about making sure that never again will people be abused simply because of their race … We should be on Bay Street inviting Bay Street to embrace this very important piece of their history, our collective history.”
For survivors, it’s important that the archive does not become a staid repository of documents for researchers and academics. Ted Fontaine, who was taken to residential school when he was 7 years old, has spent a lifetime confronting what happened to him and found solace in learning that others have shared his trauma.
“It’s not only for the academic world, but people that want to go and heal are going to use it,” Ted Fontaine says. “I’m going to use it. And hopefully everything will be in a way” that you can find things.
He wants to know where the records are of two schools he attended, Fort Alexander Indian Residential School and Assiniboia Indian Residential School.
“I knew all the stuff that happened in that era and I knew all the people that were there. Most of us are gone but it still helps in healing,” he says.
“Once I review what happened, it gets a little softer, I can handle this. The next nightmare I have, I’ll remember how I handled it previously in the nightmare.”
The commission’s report is designed not only to get at the truth of residential schools but to also explore the lasting impacts it has on indigenous communities in Canada. Part of the commission’s report will address the connection between residential schools and the approximately 1,100 missing and murdered indigenous women. But one of the challenges the TRC faces is in ensuring the report lives and its recommendations are repeated rather than shelved.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has enlisted 57 honorary witnesses, who are tasked with helping the broader Canadian public engage with the history of residential schools and keeping the report alive.
“We’re having a two-day meeting with them in Toronto in November to ask exactly that,” Murray says. “How are you going to further this work when the TRC is gone? What are you going to do as an honorary witness?
“We’re trying to get them to come together and say how are you going to change the minds and hearts of Canadians and what are you going to do to help?”
The witnesses include people from all walks of life, including former prime ministers Paul Martin and Joe Clark, former governor general Michaëlle Jean, and influential aboriginal leaders like Wab Kinew, the associate vice-president of indigenous relations at the University of Winnipeg.
For Kinew, the truth is essential to reconciliation. His father attended residential school and testified at a hearing. Kinew has his father’s testimony on DVD, but has not yet watched it.
“To me it’s an obligation to hang on to that and to make sure it’s preserved. I don’t want to make the decision unilaterally now because I feel I have an obligation to preserve the truth for the future generations in our family. So similarly, I think we should preserve this history for posterity so that we honour our obligation that the future generations in this country can learn the truth.
“To me, the way I think about it — truth and reconciliation — it’s a very powerful statement, but to me it’s also informative: no truth, no reconciliation. If we don’t hear the truth about this residential school era then there is not going to be reconciliation, there’s going to be false pretenses for the rebuilding of a relationship and those are not good starting positions,” says Kinew.
“If the rest of the country is not willing to entertain the truth of what happened in this era then how are they going to be able to appreciate the contemporary reality of indigenous communities?”