Indigenous

Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to develop memorial register of residential school deaths

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) is embarking on "very sensitive, very serious, very emotional work," says its director, as it develops and maintains a register of student deaths at residential schools.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission began work on documenting thousands of students' deaths, many unnamed

Children's toys are attached to a fence around a cemetery site associated with the old Regina Indian Industrial School. (Brian Rodgers/CBC)

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) is embarking on "very sensitive, very serious, very emotional work," says its director, as it develops and maintains a register of student deaths at residential schools.

The National Residential School Student Death Register will list the children who never returned from residential school, while also serving as a legacy memorial that will bring together thousands of documents collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

"In creating a register like this, we are ensuring that the country never forgets just how damaging, just how serious the system was," said Ry Moran, a member of the Red River Métis and director of the NCTR, which is based in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba.

"More importantly, for those families that lost loved ones to this terrible system, they know that there is this memorial that will forever exist so that their loved ones are properly respected."

These were real people, real children, real lives that were cut short... - Ry Moran

The work of documenting the deaths was begun by the TRC's Missing Children and Unmarked Burials working group. The NCTR has continued the work and says the most accurate number to date is 4,200 children identified by name and unnamed death records.

"We have to remember that this is not happening in the abstract," said Moran, who also served as the Director of Statement Gathering for the TRC.

"These were real people, real children, real lives that were cut short that had every right and deserved the chance to live a full and rich and wonderful life with their families.

More than 70 people were buried at the Battleford Industrial School cemetery, in the rural municipality of Battle River, Sask. The school operated from 1883-1914. (Bridget Yard/CBC )

"That is what has been stolen from countless families across the country and that is one of the greatest wrongs that was inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples by this residential school system."

The TRC's Call to Action 72 requested federal funding for the NCTR to develop and maintain the register. Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada provided funding to the NCTR this year for this purpose.

There will be a series of community visits over the next few months for residential school survivors, intergenerational survivors, families and Indigenous communities to have input into the project's design.

This is part of the first phase in the development of the registry.

"The community engagement process is really to ensure that we're walking side by side with communities across the country and that they are not only informed of what's going on but are involved in the development of this register right from the outset," said Moran. 

"We have to prepare ourselves as a country for digging in to a long process of a lot of very sensitive, very serious, very emotional work for communities and for our survivors."

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.