When Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) held its final event in Ottawa in June 2015, the phrase “this is just the beginning” was on everyone’s lips. At the same time, however, there was widespread sentiment among concerned parties that spreading the news about the TRC’s findings regarding the dark history of Indian residential schools in Canada, and pursuing the hard work of reconciliation itself, would be no small task.
On November 4, a key tool in this work will become available when the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NRCTR) opens its doors.
Operating out of the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, the research centre holds the millions of records uncovered by the commission that detail the role government and churches played in the 150-year history of the residential school system, as well as the thousands of survivor testimonies shared with the TRC.
One of the NRCTR’s most powerful resources is a searchable database that will allow survivors, families and researchers access to records relating to individuals and schools.
“Opening of the database marks the first step in the journey to really start to provide meaningful access to the records that so many have worked so hard to collect over the past six years,” said NRCTR director Ry Moran.
Among the materials contained in the NRCTR are thousands of copies of records held in Anglican diocesan archives and the national archives of the Anglican Church of Canada in Toronto, which were provided to the TRC as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
Although all relevant Anglican records have been handed over, Nancy Hurn, General Synod archivist, said the NRCTR and the Anglican archives continue to work closely. “People think we’re finished-and yes, we’re done producing the documents for them, but in terms of making the records understandable and accessible, there needs to be some input from the church archivists.”
A large part of this work, Hurn noted, involved making sure that all documents and photographs that have been provided are searchable, which requires providing detailed descriptions of each item. This was not done when the TRC originally copied the documents because of time and budgetary constraints.
Another issue is balancing the provision of information to survivors and their families with the need to respect individual privacy, and making sure that the church archives and the NRCTR are on the same page as to how this is done.
“Each province is slightly different,” said Hurn. “[The NRCTR] records are held in Manitoba…and they have their own privacy legislation for the centre. It’s different from the church-ours would be under Ontario regulations, so the records are covered by two different pieces of legislation.”
In addition to the legal dimensions of the problem, there are also concerns over the sensitivity of some of the material, especially the material related to survivors’ stories of abuse.
When Moran spoke to the Anglican Journal, he was in Iqaluit, meeting with residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors about how best to do this. He doesn’t think there is a single, quick-fix policy.
“The task of really coming to terms with access to all of this material now and providing meaningful access to it will be an ongoing operation requirement for the centre for years to come,” he said.
But while the NRCTR houses the largest archive of material related to residential schools in the entire country, Hurn believes the church archives still have an important role to play in telling the story of the relationship between Indigenous people and Christianity.
“We hold much more information about a community that is beyond the residential schools,” she said. “When you look at the history of the communities, you see the relationship between the church and the Indigenous peoples in the early years, and then you see what happens as a result of the residential schools.”
One striking example of this dynamic, she noted, was a register kept in Cree for the first 20 years before switching to English, reflecting the encroaching colonialism that sought to strip Indigenous people of their languages.
But the archives, Hurn added, also tell the story of a church trying to atone for its sins, and understanding the whole breadth of that story before and after residential schools is a vital part of moving toward reconciliation.
Moran stressed that the research centre archive, too, is about more than just remembering what happened: it is about building a future in which Indigenous people are equal partners.
“Reconciliation moving forward is also about addressing many elements of Canada’s colonial legacy,” he said. “The residential schools are the most obvious one we’ve been dealing with, but the treaty relationship, the other failures in the relationship are all obstacles to reconciliation.”