Some Catholic orders still withholding promised residential school records

More than a decade after signing the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, some parties still haven't fulfilled their obligation to transfer historical records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation memo says it's still waiting on 3,000 photos

A photograph of students at the Sacred Heart Mission School in Fort Providence, N.W.T., from the 1944-45 school year that was one of 338 turned over by the Grey Nuns of Montreal to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. About 3,000 more have yet to be transferred. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)

Some Catholic orders have still not turned over promised records to the research centre created as a repository for the documented history of residential schools, according to a memo provided to CBC News.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is still waiting to receive about 3,000 residential school-related photographs from the Grey Nuns of Montreal, along with historical records from the Oblates of Grandin Province, based out of St. Albert, Alta.

The centre, which is housed at the University of Manitoba, is also missing the school narratives — summarized histories— of eight residential schools because two orders, the Sisters of St. Ann and the Sisters of Charity of Providence, have refused to sign waivers allowing for their transfer to the centre.

The centre was created by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. It currently holds about 5 million residential school related records and about 7,000 survivor statements.

The memo on outstanding records, created in September 2017, was obtained through the University of Manitoba by researcher Edward Sadowski under Manitoba's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Sadowski provided the document to CBC News.

"These entities have been able to separate truth from reconciliation," said Sadowski.

"It is time that Indigenous Peoples took back what rightfully belongs to them."

Ry Moran, director of the centre, said all parties to the settlement agreement that was signed in 2006 had more than a decade to respond to their obligation to produce their historical records.

"They knew they had an obligation to produce and these bad actors that have not produced, or want to blame-shift, had every single opportunity under the sun," said Moran.

Obligations not met

The Grey Nuns of Montreal have turned over only 338 out of 3,493 photos "that they themselves promised to submit," according to the memo drafted for Moran that contained the list of outstanding records.

Sister Aurore Larkin, superior general of the Grey Nuns, said the centre is free to come to their archives in Montreal and pay for the costs of copying the photographs.

"They can come and do all kinds of research," said Larkin.

Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. (CBC)

Moran said the onus is on the orders to supply the records.

"We were not equipped with the resources to go out and scan the records of other entities that have an obligation to produce records under the settlement agreement," said Moran.

The centre operates with an about $2.8 million yearly budget and has a staff of about 22 people, said Moran. Ottawa and the University of Manitoba jointly fund the centre.

The Grey Nuns also have about 16 or 17 boxes of litigation material the order does not want to turn over to the centre, according to the memo.

Many of the litigation records were initially turned over by the order to the National Research and Analysis Directorate, which was established by Ottawa to create a database of residential school records for the compensation process established by the settlement agreement.

"The Grey Nuns' argument is that they already gave those documents to the [directorate] during the litigation period and therefore do not have to send them again," said the memo.

Students from the Sacred Heart Mission in Fort Providence, N.W.T., during the 1944-45 year in another of the photos provided so far by the Grey Nuns of Montreal to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)

An analysis of the files transferred by the order revealed that 576 of those files were "missing images" or were "of generally poor quality," said the memo.

Larkin said she couldn't directly comment on the matter because it was a legal issue.

The centre received roughly 948,000 of about 1.2 million documents gathered by directorate through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created by the settlement agreement to delve into the history of residential schools.

Won't sign waiver

The centre is additionally missing school narratives from eight schools because two Catholic orders refused to sign a waiver allowing Ottawa to transfer the records, according to the memo.

Sister Marie Zarowny, president of the Victoria-based Sisters of St. Ann, said the order won't sign the waiver over "inaccuracies" in the school narratives.   

"We are not going to allow a waiver for something that is not based on our records," said Zarowny.

The centre is missing narratives for the Kuper Island, St. Mary's and Kamloops residential schools where the order operated.

The Sisters of Charity of Providence, based in Edmonton, did not return a request for comment.

The centre is missing school narratives for the Assumption, Fort Vermilion, Grouard and the St. Augustine-Sturgeon Lake residential schools where the order operated.

The centre is also waiting to receive what are known as codex historicus files — diary-like records — of life at residential schools from the Oblates of Grandin Province, according to the memo.

However, the order no longer holds the files and has transferred all its records to Alberta's provincial archives, said Monique Cloutier, administrator for the Oblates' office in St. Albert.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him