The order of nuns that taught at the former Kamloops residential school, and others in B.C., continues to withhold important documents that could help tell the story of how Indigenous children died at the schools over the last 150 years.
The Sisters of St. Ann has never approved the release of relevant government records — documents that could relate to deaths at the schools — according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the religious order.
“It might be because there were things that weren’t relevant to the school system or names of those students, as well as other people like visitors,” said Sister Marie Zarowny, a St. Ann spokesperson.
She also said the sisters have provided some documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the residential school system, but is unwilling to share some records outlining internal workings of the congregation, as well as what is called the school “narrative.”
“What is in those documents, why can’t I have access to them?” said Bronwyn Shoush, whose father attended St. Mary’s residential school in Mission, B.C.
Like Kamloops, it was also staffed by the Sisters of St. Ann and administered by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Seven of her father’s nine siblings lay buried in the residential school cemetery. The children were all in marked graves that have since fallen into disrepair, she says. Yet she knows very little about how they came to die at school. Her father told her one sibling was killed in what he was told was an accident — falling on a pitchfork. Another died suddenly and others from Illness, but Shoush has few other details.
The National Student Memorial Register lists 21 children as having died at St. Mary’s, but to add to the confusion, none of her aunts or uncles are named.
“The longer it’s locked up and held or destroyed or held in secret, the more you’re likely to be very suspicious,” Shoush said.
It also goes against the Truth and Reconciliation mandate as set up by the Indian Residential School Settlement agreement.
“This is a concern and remains inconsistent with the actions of the vast majority of other signatories to the Settlement Agreement,” reads a statement from Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
‘Turn over these records immediately”
The Royal B.C. Museum that houses St. Ann’s private archival collection has appealed to the nuns to “provide better accessibility of these records to the public — but particularly to Indigenous communities whose members attended residential schools.”
Researchers can access the archives by appointment, but some have noted it’s not always easy to do so.
The B.C. government also called on Sister of St. Ann, imploring them “to turn over these records immediately.”
In the order’s defence, Zarowny said St. Ann wanted to be able to fix history inaccuracies before documents were made public.
But Ry Moran, who guided the creation the TRC’s national archive says having a hodgepodge of the records conceals more important truths.
“The biggest inaccuracy is that kids’ own names were robbed from them and replaced with Christian Western names,” Moran said.
“We’re going back and figuring out what names, lands, territories, identities and villages were actually stolen from kids in the first place.”
The sisters taught at a St. Mary’s, Kamloops, Kuper Island and Lower Post Indian residential schools where children experienced rampant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Records can be forced by law
St. Ann is not the only entity to refuse to hand over the documents.
Father Ken Thorson of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate told the CBC that his congregation would not be providing personnel files of the staff at the residential schools citing privacy laws.
Those could include disciplinary records of nuns who treated children poorly.
But the TRC’s mandate outlines that “In cases where privacy interests of an individual exist, and subject to and in compliance with applicable privacy legislation and access to information legislation, researchers for the Commission shall have access to the documents.”
And it’s not just churches who have refused to give up residential school documents.
The federal government has been in court as early as 2020 trying to block the creation of statistical reports on residential school abuse claims.
The Supreme Court of Canada also ruled in 2017 that thousands of records documenting abuse at residential schools should be destroyed.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations said, “As per the terms of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Canada was obligated to disclose all relevant documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
It added “the courts have consistently found that Canada has met its document disclosure obligations and that no further action is required.”
Still, those at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation disagree.
“The federal government and provincial governments also have not shared all the records they agreed to provide to the NCTR. We continue to negotiate acquisition of further records from many settler organizations — both religious and governmental,” the statement read.
For those like Shoush who want information about how her relatives died, it could take years of fighting just to find the truth.