Ottawa, 15 December 2021
Dear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,
The Canadian Historical Association (CHA) is greatly concerned by the recent news that certain records related to the operation of the Indian Residential School system in Canada have been moved by the Roman Catholic Church outside of the country. And while we recognize the international nature of this important religious institution, given the ongoing demands that the Church make available all records related to these schools, we are disheartened by its decision to limit, either purposefully or inadvertently, access to these essential records by having them housed in Rome. It is part of a wider reluctance on the part of religious institutions to open their archives to researchers. We would therefore ask that provisions be made to allow researchers to view them here in Canada.
One of the biggest challenges facing researchers seeking to find answers to urgent societal questions about the history of the Indian Residential Schools is access to information. Despite all being under the jurisdiction of the Holy See, the numerous Roman Catholic religious orders that ran, or helped run, residential schools do not have a centralized repository of records. Nor are these records freely available for anyone to view. Rather, each collection has its own special conditions regarding access. For example, while the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate donated a number of records to the BC Archives in 2019, which are currently being digitalized, the Sisters of St. Ann have their own separate archives which, though physically located in the same building as the BC Archives, are restricted. As a result, one is accessible and the other is not. There are other barriers to access within Canada, but the relocation of Indian Residential School records to Rome is unacceptable at a time when Indigenous peoples are looking for answers as should all Canadians.
While there has been much public debate about the removal of controversial statues in recent years, the real threat to Canadian history is the destruction and removal of historically important records as well as barriers to access at public archives caused by chronic underfunding and service reductions.
Archival records are essential to our understanding of Canada’s past. They provide insight into past motivations and actions as well as their social consequences. In the case of what happened in Indian Residential Schools, truth is a precondition to reconciliation.
What is preserved and what is not is highly political – profoundly shaping what we know about our history. There is a direct connection between knowledge and power.
The Canadian Historical Association calls on the federal government to ensure that historical records of Indian Residential Schools, held by the government, archival institutions, or by religious institutions -- be fully available to researchers and survivor communities. We very much hope you can take leadership on this very important issue.
Steven High, President of the Canadian Historical Association
Daniel Sims, CHA Council Member Responsible for Advocacy