Kamloops residential school discovery: What answers lie in religious archives?
VANCOUVER -- The Royal B.C. Museum is giving some insight into what information exists in the religious archives of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Genevieve Webber is the museum’s acting head of archives and has been processing records from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the missionary group that operated the school as part of the Catholic Church.
Webber says the archives were acquired “a couple of years ago.” Previously, the records were stored in an archive run by the oblates in Vancouver.
“When the oblates began to centralize their operations, they began to divest themselves of their records by donating them to appropriate public archives across the country,” Webber told CTV News Vancouver.
She says there are four other locations across the country with archives from the oblates, but B.C. has the bulk of the material.
In fact, Webber says the museum has “about 250 bankers’ boxes” full of records. Those include official government documents, letters, correspondence, daily journals, diaries and reports.
“Some of the records are written in cursive and some people had very good handwriting and some didn’t,” Webber said, adding she is “very adept” at reading the script.
In addition to written items, the museum also has maps and plans of the sites and the buildings, photographs and sound recordings.
The key question is whether the archives contain any records of deaths or burials at the site of the school. Officially, there were 51 deaths recorded. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation believes the deaths of the 215 children it recently found buried in unmarked graves were never documented.
“The community has reached out and asked us to look for any records that might indicate deaths or burials at the school and we haven’t found any records that explicitly talk about deaths and burials,” Webber said.
Even though archivists have not finished searching through the documents, Webber believes that kind of information won’t be found at all.
“We are not expecting to find explicit mention of all of the deaths, as in our research so far, it doesn’t seem like records exist that speak directly to that,” she said. “But, we do expect to have a better understanding of the conditions and what may have happened to some of the children.”
It’s likely any additional records of deaths and burials – if they ever existed – were either lost or destroyed.
“That's quite common with the state of some of the buildings. There were floods and fires and all sorts of reasons why some records did not survive,” Webber said.
WHAT DO THE ARCHIVES SAY?
Webber believes the documents will give an insight into the “conditions of life at the schools.” That could include evidence of disease outbreaks like measles, as well as the conditions of the buildings where the children lived.
According to information already recorded by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, in 1910, the school’s principal said that the government did not provide enough money to feed the students properly. In 1924, a portion of the school was destroyed by fire.
Webber says the documents also include information about the missionary work that the oblates did in the surrounding communities.
“There’s information that speaks to the conditions in general for the Indigenous people of that region at various points in time over the past 150 or so years,” she said. “It also speaks to the relationship between the Department of Indian Affairs and the school itself, as there’s a lot of letters and communication and reports back and forth between those two entities.”
The museum is in the process of digitizing the documents, which is happening with the assistance of UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.
“They have wonderful technology and the capability to safely store electronic records and share them in a way that can keep them restricted and private so that only the community members have access to them,” Webber said.
The first findings will be shared with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in the coming weeks. Webber says it will then be up to the nation to decide what information will be made public.
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.