by Sean Carleton, Crystal Fraser, and John Milloy
Earlier this month, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) opened its physical and digital doors to the public. The Centre is located in Chancellor’s Hall at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and its online archive contains “Terabytes of Testimony,” including 35,000 photos, five million government, church, and school documents, 7000 survivor statements, and a host of other materials (art, poems, music, and physical items) collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). It is an impressive and important collection. The NCTR’s mandate is to “preserve the memory of Canada’s Residential School system and legacy. Not just for a few years, but forever.”
It is hard to believe that less than twenty years ago, the Indian Residential School (IRS) system was still operating and the vast majority of Canadians were in the dark about the history and ongoing effects of the schools. In contrast, the volume of traffic to the NCTR’s digital archive was initially so high that the site crashed on multiple occasions in its first week. People’s interest in the history of residential schools “broke” the internet, so to speak. Given the long and hard-fought battles by former students, survivors, advocates, and academics to bring Canada’s residential school system to the public’s attention to facilitate redress, the opening of the NCTR and the public’s positive response so far, is a significant step towards reconciliation and healing.
As emerging and established scholars of Canada’s IRS system, we are heartened to witness the opening of the NCTR, and we are optimistic about the Centre’s potential as a powerful resource to ensure these varied and complex histories are not forgotten. Yet, we approach the NCTR cautiously and not uncritically. Much work remains. The archive is still incomplete and it is limited in significant ways. Given the Centre’s importance, we offer an assessment of the NCTR by way of briefly tracing its background and outlining our initial thoughts on its many strengths and limitations. Our aim is to spark a conversation about how historians might critically engage with this new resource to help shape the future of residential school research and to aid meaningful reconciliation.
Background and Vision
The creation of the NCTR is a result of the long and courageous fight of thousands of former students to pressure the Government of Canada and settler Canadians to come to terms with the history and ongoing deleterious effects of residential schools for Indigenous peoples. The NCTR’s specific roots can be traced back to 2007. In that year, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), an agreement which was signed by representatives of former students, the Government of Canada, Churches, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was implemented. Established as a result of the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history, the IRSSA had a number of components, including the apology to former students by the Government of Canada, the Common Experience Payment (CEP), the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), and the TRC. While bringing closure for many Indigenous peoples, the IRSSA has not been without controversy and criticism.[i]
Under the settlement agreement, the TRC was given the mandate to establish a permanent archive for all of the materials and testimonies it collected. The idea was to improve former students’ access to information, while also increasing public awareness. Now, almost ten years later, with the TRC having issued the executive summary of its report in June, the NCTR has opened to better facilitate public engagement with historical records and materials related to residential schooling. The NCTR aims to ensure that:
- Survivors and their families have access to their own history
- Educators can share the Residential School history with new generations of students
- Researchers can delve more deeply into the Residential School experience
- The public can access historical records and other materials to help foster reconciliation and healing
- The history and legacy of the Residential School system are never forgotten
Evaluating the NCTR
The NCTR has many strengths and limitations, and we should engage the archive optimistically but also cautiously and critically. The Centre’s digital collection of materials on one central site is, in itself, invaluable. Previously, pertinent records related to residential schooling were scattered in different church and government archives and researchers had to deal with a host of access restrictions. Historians, researchers, and the public will no longer be required to undergo tedious archival searches, penetrate archival gatekeepers, and travel, sometimes extensively, in order to access materials. The accessibility and breadth of the Centre’s collection will be a boon for researchers. Among the NCTR’s online holdings are transcripts of oral testimonies, photographs, administrative records, government documentation, and school newsletters.
The NCTR site also includes research tools to help people access its holdings. The searchable database, for example, provides ample information and the many photographs (especially recent ones depicted in colour) demonstrate the micro realities of everyday life for children who were institutionalized. As well, the site includes an impressive interactive map that represents the IRS system visually and allows visitors to find information about specific schools with ease. Finally, the timelines and school narratives available on the site contain previously uncovered data that shed light on various government and church policies, legislation, and operational tactics. This is all very positive. But while such digital research tools are useful for uncovering details, we must be cautious about accepting whiggish interpretations of these histories or linear understandings about change over time. The NCTR deserves closer scrutiny.
While the NCTR is a ground-breaking and exciting initiative in many ways, its collection is not without controversy. As reported in the November issue of University Affairs, questions are being raised about the Centre’s decision to include testimony from the IAP, in which former students seeking compensation provided confidential testimony. An Ontario judge ruled that such material may be kept for 15 years, but that identifying information must be redacted and people should have the option to give permission to leave their testimony in the archive. The NCTR launched an appeal of this decision arguing that it is best positioned to hold and preserve the documents in perpetuity. There are certainly ethical concerns here about preserving sensitive testimony in ways inconsistent with the IRSSA. Former students have suffered enough indignities, and hopefully the Centre can work with people to balance its desire to have a complete record with its ethical responsibilities.
In addition, it is important to recognize the NCTR as an incomplete resource. By its own admission, the Centre is still quite makeshift; only a fraction of the collection’s materials have been uploaded online and difficult work still needs to be done in terms of identifying and labeling important sources, such as photographs. It will take years, and steady and reliable funding, for the digital archive to be complete. As well, some churches and different levels of government continue to withhold important documents.
It will be important for historians to work with the NCTR and to support former students and Indigenous communities to access the most complete set of documents possible. In particular, the NCTR will need to work with archivists, historians, and teachers to create online tutorials and other resources to help survivors and the public navigate the site and access the collection.
The NCTR is also a limited resource. The Centre, like any archive, is not merely a passive repository; it produces knowledge and shapes what is knowable.[ii] It will be tempting for future researchers to turn to the NCTR as the source of residential school research. This is troubling, especially considering the difficulties the TRC had in obtaining records from the government related to, for example, the RCMP, the military, and child services. Moreover, only officially recognized “Residential Schools” are listed on the site’s main page/map, which reflects the fact that many boarding and day scholars have been left out of the IRSSA and “Truth and Reconciliation” process.
As well, the map, as the portal to the archive, ignores the many small hostels, receiving homes, orphanages, and sanatoria that Indigenous children attended as a part of their educational experience throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is, therefore, important for historians to critically engage with the NCTR in ways that can challenge some its operating assumptions and call attention to its gaps in an effort to open new avenues of historical research and political action.
Perhaps, though, it is most important to consider what the NCTR might symbolize and provide for Indigenous peoples themselves. Bringing much of the IRS collection into one space allows former students, survivors, and families the opportunity to consider their histories and those of loved ones, ancestors, and those who remain strangers due to the tragic consequences of Indian education policy. Yet, although the online tools will be useful to some, there are many Indigenous communities, especially in northern and ‘remote’ locations, that lack reliable internet access or online capabilities and thus will not be able to access the Centre’s resources.
Further, travelling to the Centre in Winnipeg comes at a steep financial cost, one that many Indigenous peoples cannot afford, particularly those coming from communities where basic human rights of clean drinking water, healthcare, and affordable food are not provided. Finally, for those who are able to access the records, but continue to suffer the lived and intergenerational effects of colonialism, we wonder what kind of supports, if any, will be offered by the NCTR. Researching and writing about traumatic histories – histories that continue to unfold before our eyes – can be trying for settler Canadians, let alone Indigenous people themselves.
After so many years of denial, disrespect, and delay, the recent acknowledgement of residential schools culminating in the opening of the NCTR is certainly a welcomed development in Indigenous-settler relations in Canada. The Centre’s physical space and digital platform will facilitate a greater understanding of the history of residential schooling in Canada, which is desperately needed.
We are confident that the NCTR will play a vital role in creating greater awareness about Indigenous issues and strengthening relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples today and in the future. Nevertheless, as Crystal Fraser and Ian Mosby and Sean Carleton have recently suggested on this site, there is still so much to learn about colonial schooling in Canada. As people engage with the NCTR it is imperative to be aware of its controversial, incomplete, and limited nature, and to think critically about how it might shape the future of residential schooling research.
Sean Carleton is a PhD Candidate in the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies at Trent University and an executive member of the Canadian History of Education Association (CHEA/ACHE). His research looks at the history of colonialism, capitalism, and education in Canada.
Crystal Fraser is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta. Gwich’in and originally from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Crystal’s research analyzes the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples at residential schools in the Northwest Territories during the second half of the twentieth century.
John Milloy is a Professor Emeritus at Trent University, a former Director of Research for the TRC, and the author of ‘A National Crime’: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986.
[i] For more on the problems with the IRSSA and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, see John Milloy, “Doing Public History in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” The Public Historian, 35, no.4 (November 2013): 10–19. See also, Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
[ii] Linda Tuhwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1999); John Lutz, Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008; Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 2009).