Residential school records needed to answer 'hard questions': special interlocutor

VANCOUVER — The woman appointed to work with Indigenous communities as they search for unmarked graves around former residential schools says additional records must be shared in order to answer "hard questions," including who the missing children were, how they died and where they are buried.

Without records of the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, special interlocutor Kimberly Murray says "deniers will continue to deny" and future generations could be led to forget.

Murray told a national gathering on unmarked burials in Vancouver that survivors have a "right to know," and that right is not only individual, but collective, so they can "draw on the past to prevent future violations."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his government is committed to sharing all the information it can possibly find about the institutions in federal records.

Despite the pledge, Murray says "the fight is not over" to find documentation with the potential to help people as they search for missing family members.

There have been numerous searches at the sites of former residential institutions since the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc announced in May 2021 that more than 200 suspected unmarked graves had been identified on the grounds of the former school in Kamloops, B.C.

A war graves expert had used ground-penetrating radar to detect the graves believed to hold the remains of children who died there.

A month later, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced as many as 751 unmarked graves had been found near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, followed by similar findings at former institutions in several provinces.

The prime minister has said the revelations sparked a reckoning for Canadians about the country's history and relations with Indigenous Peoples.

While the search is still on for records held by the government and churches that operated many of the schools, Murray says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has said the most serious gap in knowledge stems from their incompleteness.

She says many documents from past decades no longer exist, including "200,000 Indian Affairs files" destroyed between 1936 and 1994.

Federal policy in 1935 meant school returns could be destroyed after five years, while reports of accidents could be destroyed after a decade.

What's more, it's also become clear that "many, many, many deaths were not reported" to the former Indian Affairs Department, Murray says.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has found reports of children's deaths in church records that weren't recorded in government documents, she says.

In many cases, she says school authorities appear not to have recognized their responsibility under provincial laws to report deaths to vital statistics officials.

While records are crucial, Murray adds "there is nothing more powerful than the first-hand accounts from the survivors" of residential institutions.

"They are the witnesses themselves."

A 4,000-page report released by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 detailed harsh mistreatment at the schools, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, and at least 4,100 deaths at the institutions.

Murray says the number of children who died will likely never be known in full.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2023.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press