Royal British Columbia Museum working with Indigenous groups on school records

VICTORIA — The acting head of the Royal British Columbia Museum's archives says the institution will work closely with Indigenous groups as it processes and documents records from a religious order that ran residential schools across the province.

Genevieve Weber says the museum has about 250 boxes of materials, a third of which relate to residential schools run by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

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She says the records range from financial statements and letters to diaries of daily life, known as a Codex Historicus.

She says the museum started to receive and process the records in 2019, and has been reaching out to Indigenous communities mentioned in them to discuss how they would like to proceed in terms of disclosure.

Weber says the focus is to determine with Indigenous communities, such as the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc in Kamloops, what personal details in the records they are comfortable releasing so as not to cause further harm.

She says the records should be available to researchers by 2022.

"In the past, when we’ve done engagement, it's normally after the records have been available to the general public for some time. But we felt it was really important, due to the sensitive nature of these records, to reach out to Indigenous communities first," Weber said.

The First Nation announced last week that it had found what are believed to be the remains of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Since then, there have been calls for better access to records from the schools across the country. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also urged the Catholic Church to release more documents on Friday.

The Oblates ran 10 residential schools across British Columbia.

Father Ken Thorson, the provincial superior of the Oblates, said the organization had looked at making the records available in 2015 but the effort stalled.

Weber said having access to the records has already resulted in some developments in identifying residential school students. She travelled to Kamloops, where she was able to share digitized photo albums and listen to residential school survivors.

"We were able to identify a number of people in the album who had not been identified," she said. "Instead of having a photo album with no names identified, we now have an album with about 80 people identified in it."

— By Nick Wells in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2021.

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