The story that has captivated North America and the world around is the uneasy truth about Indigenous history and the relationship with the Canadian government, the church and the on-going efforts for reconciliation.
Since the uncovering of a mass gravesite of 215 Indigenous children at the Tk’emlúps Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, there has been a wave of consideration and debate within Indigenous communities about whether to conduct their own searches. Many speculate that information on the whereabouts of possible burial sites and graves may lie within the recorded testimonies of residential school survivors.
But the Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently ruled that sensitive records, archives and documents gathered between 2006 and 2012 during the Independent Assessment Process for the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) are to be destroyed by September 2027 unless survivors request documents to be preserved.
So far, 38,000 documents are archived by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. To many, reliving the atrocities and recounting the tales of their upbringing in residential schools may be daunting. However, the preservation of those stories may help hundreds, if not thousands of Indigenous families receive answers and closure for family members and relatives who may have been lost due to the residential school system.
Of the existing documents, only about 30 survivors have requested their documents be preserved. Elder Geraldine Shingoose, who attended the Muscowequan Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, fears that most survivors may be unaware of this ruling and the option to have their recorded documents archived.
“That’s history!” she said in a recent interview. “Those are sacred stories.”
Since their establishment in the 1880s, over 150,000 Indigenous children attended 140 residential schools, with the last one being shut down in 1997. Of those 140 institutions, only a handful have been searched with ground-penetrating radar. These searches have been conducted independently by their respective nations, and the count for unmarked graves may now be in the thousands.
The disposal of survivor testimonies and documents in 2027 may play a vital role in compromising search efforts for burial sites. Many survivors, advocates and the National Centre and Truth for Reconciliation are calling for more residential school victims to request that their documents be preserved and re-examined, though some Elders and survivors have actually opted to have their recounts be destroyed.
The chief adjudicator of the compensation process and 24 Catholic Church entities are in favour of destroying the documents. The Assembly of First Nations and former National Chief Phil Fontaine, who helped negotiate the settlement, also say documents should be destroyed unless a survivor requests otherwise.
Fontaine used his own story as an example, arguing that detailed accounts of abuse are private, and that some Elders may not want to relive their trauma.
Advocates and researchers face challenges getting survivors to be comfortable with sharing their stories and wanting to archive their documents. There has been a backlash since the movement began in 2021, with many groups of deniers showing up to gravesites at the Kamloops Residential School with shovels to see if any bodies could be found.
While the Cree Nation in Eeyou Istchee has yet to conduct its own searches, a hearing and a Grand Assembly will be held in Fort George during their annual Mamoweedow Ceremony that will be open for community members, survivors and Elders to express their concerns about the possibility of a ground search at the former residential school.
Many Elders say that this search should not be conducted in respect for the grounds and history, while others are open to helping families find answers. The call to reexamine documents and search grounds may be controversial, but we hope for a silver lining in efforts for reconciliation, healing and the closure of an uneventful time in history.
A helpline has been established for Indian Residential School Survivors and Intergenerational Survivors to aid with mental health support, concern and counselling by calling 1-866-925-4419.