Church submits residential school records to TRC

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(L-R) General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn, assistant archivist Laurel Parson and former general secretary Archdeacon Jim Boyles look at some of the photos from the General Synod archives relating to Indian residential schools. Photo: André Forget
(L-R) General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn, assistant archivist Laurel Parson and former general secretary Archdeacon Jim Boyles look at some of the photos from the General Synod archives relating to Indian residential schools. Photo: André Forget

It has been a long process, but the Anglican Church of Canada will submit today its digital records relating to Indian Residential Schools-over 300,000 pages of documents-to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

For General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn, who co-ordinated the seven-year digitization process, it has been a journey filled with hard work. It has also, however, been a rewarding one.

“I’ve been an archivist for 30 years,” said Hurn, “and this is predominantly the first time that I have looked at historical records that have such an impact on people’s current lives.”

Between 1820 and 1969, the Anglican church operated 35 residential schools across Canada, and as part of the 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, it was required to provide the TRC with all information related to the residential schools held in its archives.

This was the task Hurn and the church archivists faced: finding all the relevant documents, and making copies available for the TRC. Approximately half of the digitized records came from the General Synod archives in Toronto, which also held records from the Arctic and Keewatin dioceses. The rest of the records came from the archives of 30 dioceses across Canada, including those that did not have residential schools within their boundaries. The documents Hurn and the other archivists compiled will be held at the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NRCTR) at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Hurn said her feelings about the work have evolved over the course of the process.

“In the first few years, during the litigation and alternate dispute resolution period, I was working late nights trying to really understand the schools and the staff, to research the records-it was pretty intense and disturbing and stressful,” she said.

However, once the settlement agreement was established, things began to change. “It felt like we could actually do something that would make a contribution that might help the survivors understand their experience,” she explained. “Doing everything we could to make sure they were getting the compensation they were due was important…It was just a piece of what the church needed to do.” Former students and their families, academic researchers and media have full access to the church’s schools-related documents.

One of the important goals of the archival work is ascertaining the number of children who died while attending residential schools run by the Anglican church. Hurn said records from the General Synod archives and the diocese of the Arctic have identified over 100 children who died while at Anglican-run residential schools. These records were among those submitted to the TRC. Hurn noted, however, that there “could definitely be more Anglican deaths in places across the country.”

Archival research such as this has helped the TRC to estimate that at least 4,000 students died in residential schools across Canada.

But it is not just about the numbers. As Hurn noted, many of families have little or no information about how their children died. “Anything that can be added to the understanding of what happened to these children at the time of their death is so important,” she said, adding that another ongoing question has been where the children were buried.

Aside from the digital documents, the church has also submitted almost 12,000 “electronically-created documents” and over 6,000 photographs relating to residential schools. Hurn said that among the most useful records are monthly reports from the schools, photographs, superintendent and field secretary reports, diaries, parishes registers, newsletters and circular letters detailing policies. Which documents are most useful, she added, depends in part on what people are looking for.

“It depends on if you’re looking at it from the government side and the attendance records, or if you’re looking at it from the survivors’ side. The survivors are looking at the photographs and anything that identifies them as attending the school.”

Part of the settlement agreement, Hurn explained, involved giving indigenous people control over their own information. “For them to have this body of records that they can control and decide how it is to be used is really valid.”

This has raised other issues, though. Because both the church and the NRCTC (which will open in June 2015, following the official closing of the TRC) will hold the information, they must work together to ensure that they offer similar degrees of access.

Ry Moran, director of the NRCTR, said this matter is very much on his mind.

“We’re really going to be looking to all the entities that have produced records to us to understand what materials are publicly available in their archives right now, and ensuring that we’re in lockstep with that,” he said. “It’s a big task.”

For Hurn, though, there is great symbolic importance behind the records being kept by both parties. “We share the records so that both the church and the survivors can learn about the residential school history,” she said, “and so that we can move forward in healing based on those records.”

But the biggest priority for both Hurn and Moranis meeting the needs of the survivors.

“It really isn’t about us. It’s about the survivors,” said Hurn, explaining that during the process she had been driven to “hunt harder and make sure that every document we could find that was relevant could be made available” because “no one quite knew what it would mean to the survivors.”

Moran, faced with the “gargantuan task” of organizing and putting the information at the public’s fingertips, said this involves “thinking through things in a manner that will render the records accessible in ways that make sense for the users that are looking to have access to them.”

The NRCTR plans on making the records electronically available online in ways that will allow survivors to access them remotely. It has also promised to “provide personal assistance with navigating, using, and understanding the records” for those who don’t have familiarity with computers.

The guiding principle in all of this, Moran said, is based on the survivor’s desire to “do no harm,” and to ensure that the records are provided in a “respectful and dignified manner.”

“It’s really important that we get this right.”

André Forget

André Forget

André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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