Catholic Church residential school records belong to survivors and their families

Reckoning with documented institutional violence marks a crucial step to restoring the humanity of children buried in unmarked graves across the country
Photo: Kamloops residential school memorial in Vancouver, B.C., May 30, 2021. Photo by GoToVan/Flickr.
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Here there be dragons.

Last week the discovery of 215 bodies buried at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, shocked the country. This week, outrage brews at the Catholic Church’s refusal to release institutional records, leaving the public to wonder: What are they hiding?

As institutional violence researchers, we strongly suspect these records contain accounts of abuse that are beyond what many of us care to imagine. In aseptic administrative language, they will reveal the extent to which Indigenous children were brutalized and dehumanized. These records will also contain the road map to restoring humanity to those whose dignity has been stripped.

Our own work compiling and archiving institutional records from the Huronia Regional Centre informs this position. In operation from 1876 to 2009 in Orillia, Ontario, Huronia warehoused children and adults with developmental disability diagnoses.

As with the Kamloops school, Huronia’s grounds are littered with the unmarked, unkempt graves of children and youth, who died in Ontario’s custodial care system. We have witnessed enormous efforts over the last decade to find and name each body, in order to rehumanize people who experienced social degradation through the sadistic whims of institutional violence.

Beyond base self-preservation, we can imagine Church administrators assure themselves behind closed doors that the decision to keep the records private is morally defensible. Thorny issues of privacy and confidentiality, and the terrifying (if unsubstantiated) prospect of mob justice enacted upon named perpetrators, may foster a paternalistic desire to keep documents hidden. Better to keep the door locked than to expose survivors and staff alike to an onslaught of public scrutiny.

But this is not a morally defensible position. These records belong to the people about whom they were written: residential school survivors and their families.

We call on the Church to undertake the project of making documents public, so survivors and their families are able to piece together Canada’s history of dehumanization and genocide.

This work is not only possible, it is essential. In our work this restoration process has relied on the testimony of Huronia survivors and bereaved relatives, coupled with access to the admission, medical, psychological, and educational files that Huronia gatekeepers kept on residents. We have used these documents to verify and concretize the histories we’ve been plainly told so many times about the horrors of institutional life.

These records are the missing piece of the puzzle for survivors whose histories are too often discounted and disbelieved. Such documents play a central role in public projects about this part of Canada’s history, including our forthcoming digital archive and filmmaker Barri Cohen’s upcoming CBC documentary on the subject.

Reckoning with this documented violence marks a first, crucial step to restoring the humanity of the children buried not only at Kamloops but most assuredly in unmarked graves across the country. For these reasons, we believe the Church has a moral obligation to provide access to all the documents in their possession, first to survivors and their family members and second to the Canadian public.

Here there be dragons. In order to be slain, these dragons must be confronted by those who have kept them chained, and those who’ve been burned by them again and again.

Dr. Kate Rossiter is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Dr. Jen Rinaldi is an associate professor at the Ontario Tech University. They are lead researchers on the Recounting Huronia Project and are in the process of building a large digital archive about the Huronia Regional Centre, which will go live in the winter of 2022. More information about the restoration of Huronia’s burial site can be found at Remember Every Name.

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