Critical Reflections on Histories of Residential Schools

By Karen Froman, Leah Kuragano, Aileen Friesen, Cathy Mattes, Mary Jane Logan McCallum

On Sept 25, 2023, the University of Winnipeg’s History Department Indigenization Committee presented a panel engaging with the Interim Report of the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, entitled Sacred Responsibility: Searching for the Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, here: released by Interlocutor Kimberley Murray in June 2023.

L-R Karlee Sapoznik Evans (Deputy Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth), Chair; Sarah Delaronde, Univeristy of Winnipeg Indigenous Engagement Office; Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Cathy Mattes, Karen Froman, Leah Kuragano, and Aileen Friesen, History Department Indigenization Committee members.

The OSI’s role is to identify measures to ensure the appropriate treatment and protection of unmarked graves and burial sites of children at former residential schools. The interim report points to twelve key findings that included issues of access to, and destruction of records; the importance of affirming Indigenous data sovereignty; facing an Increase in the violence of denialism; a lack of adequate funding and supports; and the importance of accountability and justice in the process. As a committee, we wanted to engage with the report by asking each others questions to illicit a discussion of the issues in the report in the context of being historians in Canada. What follows are several of the questions we asked each other and a summary of our answers.

  1. What alternative historical research methods are needed to overcome the barriers around access to archives and records?

Mary Jane: It is important for historians to articulate when and where barriers to their research happen – in publications, in talks, and with the institutions they are consulting. These barriers impact research procedures. Delays and restrictions, for example, require us to modify plans for undertaking research and to seek out alternative sources.  You may even need to change the objectives and planned activities and outputs of a project.

For example, when the Indigenous Histories of Tuberculosis in Manitoba was initiated many years ago, it focused on the management of the disease, largely by the federal government and the Sanatorium Board of Manitoba. This included studying “case finding” initiatives like x-ray surveys, the removals of Indigenous people to hospitals for treatment, and the Sanatorium Board rehabilitation programs for those who recovered. Over the course of the project, many citizens approached us to ask for help in finding relatives who went away for treatment and did not come home. But researcher agreements and the Access and Privacy Laws they negotiate, prevent researchers from discussing any personal or health information in records.  To address a public need, and adapt to access restrictions, the project changed its planned outputs – instead of a scholarly book or articles, the team created a “Research Guide” that takes people through the steps needed to undertake this kind of research on their own. To follow up, we are creating video modules that familiarize people with archives, archivists, and case studies of similar searches for missing relatives.  A draft version of the guide can be found here:

  1. How is the University of Winnipeg implicated in the history of residential schools generally and missing children and unmarked burials more specifically?

Karen: Manitoba College was founded in 1871 by the Reverend George Bryce. Following unification of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregationalist faiths in 1925, it cooperated more closely with its Methodist counterpart, Wesley College, and in 1938, Manitoba College merged formally with Wesley College to form United College, precursor of the University of Winnipeg.[1] The Rev. Bryce was also the brother of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, most well-known for his scathing report on health conditions in residential schools in 1907. Preliminary research into the University of Winnipeg’s precursor shows at least one of the early graduates of Manitoba College went on to careers in the residential school system; the Rev. George Laird worked at Crowstand Residential School in Saskatchewan. I would suspect there are many more. Of the sixteen schools run by the United Church and affiliates, there are at least 334 suspected unmarked graves and 884 confirmed.

  1. How have various archives treated these records and what lessons on accessibility can be learned?

Aileen: Various archives and institutions across Canada have documents, photographs, and other materials related to residential and day schools. These materials are not only essential for documenting the 150-year plus history of this part of the colonial system, but also to provide answers to Indigenous families and communities about unmarked graves and missing children. As a part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement of 2007, the Canadian government and signing religious organizations agreed to provide residential school records to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In addition, the TRC in its Calls to Action requested organizations with residential school records to make them accessible to Indigenous communities by depositing them at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).

Over the past eight years, some progress has been made with the digitization of residential school records, as well as those related to day schools. For example, in 2018, Mennonite Church Canada initiated a project to digitize day school records located at Mennonite Heritage Archives, providing them to the NCTR; recently Library and Archives Canada made a commitment to digitize six million pages on day schools within the next three years. Yet, not all records have been turned over and the special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked burials at residential schools,  Kimberly Murray, emphasizes that this absence of full accessibility continues to negatively affect Indigenous communities and families in their searches. As Indigenous communities organize searches based on survivor testimonies and archival documents, the issue of accessibility will only grow in importance.

  1. What does Indigenous data sovereignty mean and how might this be achieved?

Indigenous data sovereignty recognizes that Indigenous peoples are the ultimate authorities over our own data.  It is founded on our ability and right as Indigenous peoples to be the stewards of our own information, resources, and knowledges. This includes access to data pertaining to the Residential School and Day School systems where Indigenous ethics, protocols, and needs are prioritized first and foremost. Ensuring Indigenous data sovereignty in the name of Truth and Reconciliation should recognize the spectrum of information, for example, oral stories, land-based initiatives, experiential learning, and art.

Data should be as accessible as possible to those Indigenous peoples impacted by Residential and Day Schools. This includes ensuring the ordering of any relevant records be completely free. Upon request, advisors should be available to guide survivors, family members, and communities when making requests for records. Because Indigenous data sovereignty is relational and embodies knowledge systems, it must be recognized as wholistic, intergenerational, and grounded in generous reciprocity and care.

5. What are the responsibilities of settler historians, particularly in an environment of denialism?

Leah: First and foremost, it is important for my fellow settler historians to remember that there is labor involved in giving guidance. There is a wealth of publicly available knowledge from Indigenous people on the topic of settler responsibilities. It is part of our responsibility to seek out that existing information and to help one another to do so, rather than relying only on our Indigenous colleagues and community members to guide us.

Second, it is crucial that settler historians reckon with our orientations and particular modes of knowledge. We tend to promote Euro-centric and colonial ways of knowing as universal givens, inadvertently devaluing the work of Indigenous historians. For instance, we must remember that “research,” “evidence,” and “data” have distinct meanings for Indigenous scholars, especially for those studying the histories of Residential Schools. The “evidence,” in this case, can take the form of a deep pain and enduring hurt. The “data” are the lives of family and kin. The “research” pursues healing and justice.

Settler historians may not fully internalize this difference if our research agenda is less personal. As historians, we all share an unwavering commitment to evidence-based research, but we must also give equal priority to compassionate and justice-oriented modes of engagement and inquiry. By adjusting our orientation toward all three of these modes and insisting on their equal prioritization within our own fields, settler historians will better fulfill their responsibilities to their Indigenous colleagues and advance a practice of history that is prepared to confront the mounting violence of denialism.

The authors comprise the University of Winnipeg’s History Department’s Indigenization Committee. Aileen Friesen’s Mennonite ancestors settled on the traditional Indigenous lands of southern Manitoba that formed Treaty 1 Territory during the 1870s and 1920s. She is a scholar of imperial Russian history and of Mennonite history on the Ukrainian steppe. Leah Kuragano is a recent newcomer to Canada from the United States. She is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research focuses on U.S. settler colonialism and the politics of indigeneity, race, and decolonization in the Pacific. Karen Froman is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River. She was born and raised off-reserve in Winnipeg and is the daughter and niece of residential school survivors. Cathy Mattes is Associate Professor in Art History. Her curation, research and writing centers on dialogic and Indigenous knowledge-centered curatorial practice as strategies for care. Mary Jane Logan McCallum is a band member of the Munsee Delaware Nation in southwestern Ontario and an historian of Indigenous health, education, and labour history.

The Indigenization Committee is a service committee of the department, struck in 2016. The committee documents the Department’s Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR) courses, runs a History ICR essay contest, keeps the department informed and engaged on scholarly work in the field of Indigenous history, and a range of other curriculum, scholarly, and university service (for more on the committee, see:

List of Accessible Resources:

Office of the Special Independent Interlocutor, Sacred Responsibility: Searching for the Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Interim Report June 2023:

Manitoba Indigenous Tuberculosis History Project, Missing Patients Research Guide June 2023:

“Decolonization, Indigenization and the History Department in Canada,” Active History 15 September 2017,

[1] Manitoba Historical Society accessed Oct. 28, 2021

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.