WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Researchers in Ottawa have uncovered new evidence to suggest some archival records relating to residential schools in Canada are now only available in Rome, prompting renewed calls for the Vatican to release historic documents that could help piece together what happened to the Indigenous children who were forced to attend the 48 residential schools once run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
“The records that we had looked at here are no longer in this country,” said Brenda Macdougall, a professor and research chair in Métis family and community traditions at the University of Ottawa.
“Those records belong to Canada. They belong to the people first and foremost. … They have to come back through subpoena or the church. The Pope himself can suspend canonical law and return them.”
Historians also tell CBC they were alarmed to witness some old materials from the Oblates’ former headquarters in Ottawa thrown out in a dumpster about seven years ago.
Starting in the late 1800s, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic order, played a significant role in the development of Indigenous schools.
The order ran institutions across the country including the three former residential schools where unmarked graves were recently discovered in Kamloops, B.C., Marieval, Sask., and near Brandon, Man.
Today, the order is small, with only a few hundred aging priests left to carry out what their current leader, Father Ken Thorson, calls the “important work of understanding the truths of what took place and owning these truths with deep humility.”
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the Oblates have an extensive archival repository of “correspondence, reports, personnel records, financial documents, photographs and lists.”
Since 2011, thousands of Oblate materials have been turned over and digitized by the centre, but there are many more records still to be made accessible.
And many of those records were housed in the Deschâtelets Archives, formerly located in the Oblate seminary in Ottawa, near Saint Paul University.
“The Deschâtelets Archives were absolutely the repository of records for all of the western missions, for the northern missions, for the eastern missions,” said Macdougall.
Until 2014, Macdougall and her fellow historians conducted research at the archives into early Oblate missions, including uncovering residential school information.
That year, however, the Oblates’ Ottawa property was sold and the archives were moved.
The Oblates told CBC most of their records were sent to their archive facility on the Oblates’ campus in Richelieu, Que.
But Macdougall and another historian both told CBC that recently, when they were verifying footnotes in their academic research, they were told by Oblate archivists that at least one series of significant records, previously located in Ottawa, now live in Rome. They were told there are not even transcripts in Canada.
The records in question concern early residential school history in northern Saskatchewan.
“So we asked if these were the original records or had we looked at copies, and the answer came back, no, all of the records belong to Rome,” said Macdougall.
The other historian, whom CBC has agreed not to name for fear of reprimand, calls the Deschâtelets Archives a “treasure trove” of material concerning schools that were run by the Oblates for decades, but he fears the archive isn’t providing the full story as to why the records are no longer in Canada.
Are other records hidden?
They also question what other records might be hidden as a result.
This news comes at a time when the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has a new agreement with the Oblates to provide more residential school records.
The Deschâtelets Archive is refining its policies, tools and practices, according to Thorson.
“This includes streamlining duplicates, when the original documents exist elsewhere. If the researchers are being directed to Rome,” he said. “The researchers are now being directed to the original source.”
He didn’t elaborate as to where the transcripts that used to be in Canada have now gone, a question the researchers say they’ve also asked, but received no answer.
For Macdougall and other researchers and survivors who’ve spent years trying to piece together the truths of residential schools, there’s a growing lack of trust.
“It’s a slow creep of behaviour that leads to this level of distrust now, and I think that the distrust is warranted,” she said.
“How do we know what went and what stayed? These are concerning questions.”
Historians should have been consulted as the archives were packed up, moved, sent to different regions or thrown out, according to Macdougall.
Four academics who had previously done research at the Oblate’s Deschâtelets Archives in Ottawa told CBC that some material was found in a large dumpster outside the old seminary around the time of the move in 2014.
They said they were told by the Oblates that only old, unwanted books, such as duplicate copies of Indigenous dictionaries, had been thrown into the trash.
When the researchers tried to recover the material, they found the papers had already been collected by recycling trucks.
“I don’t know what was destroyed at this point or what was transferred out of country or what is simply closed to us, because what we’ve seen over the years is that as researchers have gone into the archives — and not even necessarily looking for residential school stories — they have found references to schools and to children and to incidences at those places, and those records became closed,” said Macdougall.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation are drafting an agreement regarding the sharing of files, including personnel information.
“Over time, the OMI have gained greater understanding of the importance of fulsome and transparent access to all information related to all aspects of the administration of Indian residential schools,” Thorson wrote in a recent response to questions from CBC.
Thorson, an Oblate leader in Ottawa, said his organization is now funding additional staff at archives in Richelieu, Winnipeg and Edmonton, and they are in the process of transferring codices or daily diaries kept by Oblates administering residential schools.
“The archivists curating our files are working hard to complete the process for all 48 schools we administered,” wrote Thorson.
But requests for handing over Oblate archives began more than a decade ago.
Contractors involved in document collection for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2011 told CBC that TRC researchers who went into the Oblate archives in Ottawa were monitored, provided selected boxes and materials to examine and digitize. They said after several months, and before the work was complete, they were told they were no longer welcome in the archives.
When asked about this, Thorson said “giving reasons as to why other researchers may have been turned away would only be speculation on our part because the Oblates continued to provide documentation to the TRC after November 2011.”
Authorities across the country are searching several former residential school properties for possible unmarked graves, but depending on what is found, they also need school records to piece together the stories of former students.
In Bobby Cameron’s community, north of Saskatoon, survivors and their descendents are still looking for information about St. Michael’s Residential School, another school run by the Oblates.
Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said the Oblates have promised in the past to release records. He worries those archives may not even be in Canada.
“We’re still waiting. It’s crucially important because there’s many families that still need closure. There are many families that need to find out the truth. That’s what those records will expose, the names, the dates, the times, even right down to the point where an individual might be buried,” said Cameron.
Oblates are just one group that holds important records. The Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is also asking provincial governments and coroners’ offices to make documents accessible to Indigenous communities.
Indigenous survivors and leaders hope an apology and visit from Pope Francis might lead to action.
But Macdougall doesn’t understand the fixation on an apology from the Pope when what is really needed is better access to historical information.
“If we don’t have the records, we can’t tell anything about actual truth,” said Macdougall. “Reconciliation can never happen if we don’t have access to that full corpus body of records and no apology will mean anything.
She fears the only way the records will be returned to Canada is if the federal government subpoenas these records as state records.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected.
People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line, at 1-866-925-4419.