Records for residential schools should be made public, says Blood Tribe researcher

Tiffany Prete, of Kainai First Nation and adjunct professor at the U of A has had challenges accessing historical records on residential schools.

Tiffany Prete, adjunct professor at the U of A, has been researching residential schools for the past decade

Tiffany Prete, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, has been researching the history of residential schools on Kanai (Blood) First Nation in Alberta. She said access to private historical documents has been a challenge. (Moonsong Photography)

A First Nations researcher says records from Canada's residential schools need to be made public to fully understand the scope of what happened at the schools and to help communities heal. 

For the past decade, Tiffany Prete has been researching the history of residential schools in the Kainai (Blood) First Nation trying to piece together what happened to the victims and survivors. 

Her  ancestors, including her mother and grandmother, were sent to St. Paul's and St. Mary's residential schools in Kainai First Nation. 

On Friday, after Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced preliminary findings of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, the Catholic religious order that operated the residential schools, said it will disclose all historical documents.

For Prete, who has spent most of her research looking for public and private historical documents, it's amazing news but she wishes records across Canada would be made public.

"We know from our ancestors, and survivors have said that there are many more graves across Canada that have not been disclosed yet. So everybody could benefit from having those records available to them," said Prete, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta and postdoctoral fellow at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary.

Last month, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced preliminary findings indicating the remains of 215 children at a burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Although the news of these findings have sent shockwaves across the country, Prete said it's not surprising for Indigenous peoples. 

"This is something that we heard about growing up around people who were survivors of things like this," she said. "So it's not shocking to me. It is very, very sad but we already knew that it existed."

Prete said she decided to research residential schools to better understand the present circumstances of Indigenous peoples today.

"I really wanted to be able to help change some of these negative perceptions that are presently in Canada at the way that people look at Indigenous peoples." 

The work has been a challenge. Prete has looked at government policy and memos. She has partnered with museums and archives, both public and private. She said the public documents were easy to access but private records took time and effort. 

It was through conversations with different archivists that she said she learned of their existence and even then the process of acquiring those documents was a lot of hard work. 

Prete said there is also a lot of paperwork and meetings with personnel to see the archives themselves and more paperwork to actually get copies. 

She said there is still a lot of restricted documents that she has not been able to get access to. 

"I think would be very beneficial for people to be able to see what that restricted material is," she said. 

Accessing these records is critical to understanding what happened at these schools and for the present generation to move forward, Prete said.  

"So that we can learn what happened and that we can heal from what has happened and hopefully will be in a better position to move on."

Prete said she also wants to see the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action, particularly number 78, to remember the history of residential schools.

We'll talk to a woman from the Blood Reserve about the challenges of finding out what happened to students who never came home. 8:01

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

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: 1-866-925-4419.