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National archives to digitize, transfer 6 million pages of Indian day school records, official says

Canada’s national archives is working to identify, digitize and transfer six million pages of federal Indian day school records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), the department head says.

That kind of paper would fill multiple tractor trailers to the brim, said Leslie Weir, librarian and archivist of Canada, who hopes to finish the work in three years time.

“We’re quite confident that we can get the six million pages digitized within the time frame,” she said.

“We’ve already done more than 90,000 pages.”

Weir was responding to a July Senate report vowing to demand answers from groups that haven’t released records connected to Canada’s residential school system.

Accusing governments and churches of “standing between Indigenous Peoples and the truth,” the Senate standing committee on Indigenous Peoples published a list of records the NCTR says remain outstanding.

On that list were day school records from Weir’s department of Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

“There was no surprise that we would be on that list,” Weir said, adding that her organization welcomes the opportunity to testify.

Budget pledged $25M to digitize files

Like residential schools, Indian and federal day schools were federally funded and often church run, with the aim of assimilating First Nations, Inuit and Métis youth into mainstream Canadian society.

An estimated 200,000 pupils attended nearly 700 day schools, operating between the 1860s and 2000. An estimated 150,000 children attended residential schools between the 1870s and 1997. 

Despite inflicting similar trauma and abuse, day schools weren’t included in the 2006 residential school settlement deal and survivors didn’t settle their claims against Canada until 2019.

A woman in a red shawl with a painting behind her.
Library and Archivist of Canada Leslie Weir in her Ottawa office. Behind her is a 2003 artwork ‘Friends Reunite’ by Annie Pootoogook. (Bret Forester/CBC)

“Day schools were an integral part of the plan to try to take away the culture, the community connection and the language,” said Weir, whose department is officially mandated to be the federal government’s memory.

That means there’s also records connected to Canada’s system of Indian hospitals and the federally run Indian boarding homes program for Indigenous students attending provincial public schools.

Weir said there’s no hard boundary between residential schools and other Canadian institutions of assimilation and segregation. She also acknowledged her department could have been seen as “maybe trying to protect the government record more than provide access to it.”

LAC is looking at proactively disclosing other records, like the files from the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, once the government turns them over, she said.

On the other hand, the day schools document digitization is a specific Trudeau Liberal government pledge that came with $25 million for a three-year project via Budget 2022.

The archives got the cash in December 2022 and started digitizing day school files in May, said Weir.

15 tons of paper destroyed: TRC

Questions about outstanding documents resurfaced in Canada following the locating of potential unmarked burials near the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. in May 2021.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and NCTR have documented 4,117 deaths at residential schools. But in volume four of its 2015 report, the TRC warned there were “significant limitations” to its data on deaths.

The commission found that 15 tons of paper were destroyed under a 1933 government policy, including 200,000 Indian Affairs files between 1936 and 1944.

In an interview following release of the Senate report, NCTR executive director Stephanie Scott said that after the Kamloops discovery, the Canadian government vowed to disclose millions more documents.

“There is potentially another 23 to 30 million records that we’ll receive from federal government departments,” said Scott.

She lauded the Senate for demanding governments and churches hurry up.

“We’re losing survivors every day,” she said.

“It’s important that we obtain the records and get them into the hands of communities.”

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