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Records Could Shed Light on Canada Residential Schools for Indigenous Children


OTTAWA—A trove of documents that could help identify children who died while attending boarding schools for indigenous children in Canada is set to be released after a yearslong battle.

Last month, the Canadian government said it would turn over about 12,000 documents to the country’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, which houses the largest repository of residential-school records.

The documents include historical records of some of the schools, which operated in Canada for more than a century and were attended by some 150,000 indigenous children, many separated from their families by force or coercion. A majority of the institutions were run by the Catholic Church.

The government came under increased pressure to turn over the documents, which researchers said may include attendance records and staff lists, after the discovery last year of more than 1,000 unmarked graves near former residential schools in western Canada.

The records weren’t made available earlier, the government said, because several Catholic entities that were involved with the schools had refused to consent to their release. The government believed consent was required because the records were collected in response to lawsuits against the government and religious groups.

A memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in Kamloops, British Columbia, in July 2021.



Photo:

DARRYL DYCK/Associated Press

Advocates say the documents could help offer some closure to survivors of Canada’s residential-school system, which a government-backed inquiry concluded was akin to “cultural genocide.”

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in 2015 that it had identified about 3,200 deaths of indigenous children at the schools but said the death toll was likely higher as many student deaths went unreported, partly because records were destroyed and school principals didn’t log all deaths. More deaths have since been identified, bringing the recorded total to about 4,100.

A statement from the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, or NCTR, which holds material that was collected by the Commission, said the records the government plans to release could help identify children who went missing while attending residential schools. The NCTR hopes the documents include attendance records, transportation manifests, staff lists and invoices.

The government expects to provide the records to the NCTR in early 2022.

The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc indigenous community near Kamloops, British Columbia, last spring disclosed evidence of about 200 unmarked graves around a former government-funded and church-operated school for indigenous children. Since then, hundreds more unmarked graves at or near the sites of former residential schools have come to light.

A tribute to the missing children of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, in Brantford, Canada, in November.



Photo:

cole burston/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The discoveries prompted some residential-school survivors and indigenous communities to redouble their efforts to gain access to certain historical records. Before the Kamloops discovery, religious orders and governments had stymied efforts to access them, indigenous advocates said.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said all who played a role in the residential-school system must do more to demonstrate transparency. In September, the group issued an apology to indigenous people for the role of Catholic entities in the system and committed to providing records that could help memorialize those buried in unmarked graves.

The Canadian government said on Wednesday that it previously disclosed more than four million documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is committed to taking steps to share more records while respecting survivors’ wishes, legislation, court orders and settlement agreements.

The Sisters of St. Ann, a Catholic group whose members taught at the Kamloops school, hadn’t consented to the records’ release to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when its work was under way in 2014, according to the government. A spokeswoman for the organization said it now supports the government’s plan to release the records and is re-examining other records for further information about its role in residential schools.

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Marc Miller,

the Canadian minister in charge of indigenous relations, said last month that officials would be reviewing other records the government holds that relate to residential schools to see if more documents could be released.

Ry Moran,

the former executive director of the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation and now associate librarian at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said the promise to disclose more documents could mark a pivotal moment in understanding Canada’s history with indigenous peoples.

Mr. Moran, who also worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the commission realized near the end of its six-year inquiry into the residential-school system, which concluded in 2015, that not all necessary records were obtained and that some might have been withheld.

Separately, the NCTR said last month that the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic organization that ran dozens of Canadian residential schools including the school in Kamloops, had offered to provide copies of any records about the schools that may currently be held in the Oblate archive in Italy. Some of the archival records could include letters sent by Oblate missionaries to leaders in France or Rome, the NCTR said.

An Oblate leader in Canada, Father Ken Thorson, said in emailed remarks in November that the organization had committed to making all of its historical documents related to the administration of residential schools available to indigenous communities, families and survivors.

A survivor of the Mohawk Institute Residential School gathered with other survivors on the grounds of the former school in November as a search for unmarked graves began.



Photo:

cole burston/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

He said more than 40,000 documents had been made available to the NCTR, and the Oblates committed last June to releasing two more troves of documents covering the personnel files of Oblates who worked at the school and the so-called codex historicus, in which Oblate members wrote about their daily lives.

In Kamloops, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community is trying to access records held by the government and other organizations that could help identify children who may have died during the years the school operated, said Don Worme, a Saskatchewan-based lawyer who is working with the community. Mr. Worme, who also served as legal counsel for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during its mandate, said the government and church entities weren’t forthcoming with records in prior years.

“The difference in the equation now is the massive oversight” from the public as a result of the discovery of the unmarked graves in Kamloops, Mr. Worme said.

A spokesman for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said that it has worked with indigenous partners on healing and reconciliation for years, including on document disclosure, but that “there’s no question that this year’s uncovering of unmarked burial grounds has motivated a series of painful, yet important, conversations.”

“There is a willingness to share the truth now,” Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, said in a recent statement. “We are grateful that survivors, their families, and their communities will now be able to honor and remember the children who never returned home, and all Canadians can learn the full history.”

Write to Kim Mackrael at kim.mackrael@wsj.com and Paul Vieira at paul.vieira@wsj.com

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