A teepee is pictured at a graveyard in the Cowessess First Nation near Grayson, Sask., July 6. A search found more than 750 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School. CNS photo/Shannon VanRaes, Reuters

Residential school records available online

By 
  • December 15, 2021

Bringing together a trove of newly available documents, the most complete record of how Catholic residential school operators ultimately ended their obligations under the historic 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement is now online.

The University of British Columbia Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre has assembled historical timelines, court documents and background papers that tell the tale of how 52 Catholic entities, primarily religious orders, agreed in 2006 to provide three separate streams of compensation to Indigenous communities. The three streams should have totalled nearly $79 million to help communities recover from generations of family separations and childhood trauma experienced at the schools.

Many of the documents available now at the UBC Centre’s website have been locked up in obscure court records until the 2021 summer of anger over unmarked graves sent news organizations searching for them through Access to Information requests.

As the new online resource launched Dec. 7, The Catholic Register learned that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has commissioned its own narrative of how the court-and-government driven process was finally settled in 2015.

“They are keen to have somebody put together a credible narrative,” said Grouard-McLennan Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, who chaired the now defunct Corporation for the Catholic Entities Party to the Indian Residential School Settlement (CCEPIRSS), which represented the 52 religious orders and dioceses that had obligations under the final settlement.

The CCCB would not say when its version of the story will be made public.

“The CCCB is making every effort to be open and transparent about the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system as we work to meaningfully advance healing and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,” said CCCB spokesperson Jonathan Lesarge.

A demand for more complete and accessible records was to form a central part of what the three national Indigenous political organizations were going to ask of Pope Francis in the now-delayed meeting at the Vatican. A delegation of bishops led by CCCB president Bishop Raymond Poisson met with the Pope Dec. 8 to discuss a new date for the meeting, which Poisson expects will be in the spring.

The UBC Centre’s academic director,  Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, would like to collaborate with the CCCB in putting together a single, accessible and complete record on residential schools.

The CCCB was not a party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and it is unclear what documentation it would have access to.

While there is obviously disagreement about whether the Catholics really did fulfil their part of the 2006 agreement, Turpel-Lafond is hoping for a more collaborative and less confrontational approach to the issue of documents.

“Obviously, this is not a time to step away from tough issues. People have to lean into tough issues,” she said.

“Consistent with Justice (Neil) Gabrielson’s (2015) decision, we remain confident that CCEPIRSS fulfilled its obligations under the agreement,” said Lesarge.

The 2006-2015 settlement documents come to light just as the broader issue of documents has gained momentum.

In July the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who operated 48 different residential schools,  pledged to turn over and digitize as many documents as possible, in addition to over 40,000 already in the hands of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The UBC Centre is a partner organization with the NCTR.

At the beginning of December, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced the government would give the NCTR about 12,000 residential school records it jointly possesses with some of the Catholic entities that ran the schools, despite certain legal rights the Catholic entities have to keep those records sealed.

The Oblates don’t know which documents the federal government will be releasing.

“I can’t speculate about which documents the minister is referring to, but can confirm that we have not been approached by the government for the release of any additional records,” said OMI Lacombe Province provincial superior Fr. Ken Thorson.

“The Oblates are committed to transparency, especially as it concerns our historical records related to our work in residential schools, which might assist survivors and their families and communities. As well as the families and communities of the children who did not return from residential schools, in coming to a deeper understanding of their history.”

Thorson has committed to turning over Codex Historicus records — a kind of journal of the missionary order’s activities, along with photographs, human resources records and teacher profiles.

“It was always a question to me why we wouldn’t make them available. I never really understood it and I don’t understand it now. But we’re making them available,” he said.

(NOTE: A previous version of this story stated that the federal government would share about 12,000 Oblate residential school records with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. In fact, these records relate to other Catholic entities that ran residential schools.)

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