Access to residential school records an ongoing challenge, people tell unmarked burials gathering

The federal government appointed special interlocutor Kimberly Murray in June with a two-year mandate. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC - image credit)
The federal government appointed special interlocutor Kimberly Murray in June with a two-year mandate. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC - image credit)

Accessing records is one of the biggest challenges in locating unmarked burials and identifying missing children from residential schools, survivors and experts say.

"The current systems and structures are failing us," said Kimberly Murray, special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with residential schools, in her closing remarks following the inaugural national gathering on unmarked burials.

The gathering took place Sept. 13-14 in Edmonton, bringing together over 300 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis leaders and survivors, families, and communities that have embarked on burial site searches.

On Wednesday, four rapporteurs presented summaries of what was said and heard during breakout sessions the day before on issues related to records and archives, search technology, investigations, and protecting and accessing residential school sites. Each session heard from three experts and knowledge holders.

Tanya Talaga, an Anishinaabe journalist, was one of the rapporteurs tasked with presenting the session that asked what records are out there, what are they, and how do you access them?

"These are big questions we've been hearing a lot about so far for the last two days and I don't know if we're going to find any answers in this particular session," said Talaga.

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC
Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC

Last year, Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta formed the Acimowin Opaspiw Society to investigate possible burial sites at the Blue Quills residential school, and formed a reconciliation partnership with the Catholic Church in order to access records.

Leah Redcrow, director of stakeholder engagement for the Acimowin Opaspiw Society, talked about the steps taken to form the partnership including drafting and signing non-disclosure agreements, getting adequate data management, and getting a band council resolution.

"The goal of reconciliation partnerships is to restore harmony between the people the entities represent," said Talaga.

"Why is this a good idea? It is important to note that the Catholic Church is not compelled or required to provide records…. Each archdiocese makes that decision, and you need those records to conduct your investigations."

The records are guarded, she said, but all life events of residential school students were recorded in the parish, not the residential schools.

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC
Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC

Representatives from the federal government and churches had an opportunity to respond to what was presented by the rapporteurs.

Marion Haggarty-France, mission advancement senior lead at the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, also acknowledged the complicated structures of the Catholic Church.

"What we need to do is simplify some of those structures and make it much easier for our communities to access," she said.

"What we hear at events like this is that there are barriers and we've got to take them down."

Eliminating barriers

Both Rev. Carmen Lansdowne, the moderator for the United Church, and Alan Perry, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, said their respective churches are trying to eliminate barriers when it comes to accessing records and archives.

Lansdowne said the United Church has its Bring the Children Home initiative, where survivors, families and communities can reach out by email to request documents and information.

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC
Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC

The church has also recently located all of its day school records and are currently researching its mission and hospital records and making those available to communities.

"We worked really hard to reduce barriers and to make things as easy as possible," said Lansdowne.

"But out of that commitment to taking a trauma informed approach, we will never proactively reach out when we have records because we need to hear from the families and the communities that they're ready."

The Anglican Church of Canada hired a researcher this year to review all files and documents, cross-referencing with cemetery records and site plans, as well as its database of children who died at residential schools.

"We'll be going through that database to make sure that there's no stone left unturned," said Perry.

Murray's office will host another gathering at the end of November in Winnipeg, with a focus on community well-being and addressing the trauma of missing children.

Janice Makokis, one of the other rapporteurs, said that at her session some people expressed concern that the gathering didn't allow enough time for questions and meaningful dialogue.

Murray said she will take it into account for the next gathering, as well as providing more space for direct participation, and incorporating more ceremony and wellness supports.

"We had an ambitious agenda for this gathering," said Murray.

"I know everybody wants more time, more opportunity to share, to learn and have your voices heard."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at