The federal government has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Winnipeg’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to disclose over 875,000 documents related to the Indian Residential School system that Ottawa has previously withheld.

Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister, Marc Miller, made the announcement virtually on January 20, along with Executive Director of the National Centre, Stephanie Scott, and Sioux Lookout’s Garnet Angeconeb – a survivor of the Pelican Indian Residential School.

“Last year was a turning point for all Canadians,” said Miller. “The identification of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across the country was tangible and painful evidence of the abuse that Indigenous children have suffered at residential schools.”

“Canada has a moral obligation to survivors to pursue the truth and to ensure access to documents, school narratives and records that are so important to healing, to closure, to education and to preservation,” adds Miller.

Residential school survivors have long called on Ottawa to release these records, which were mostly held by the government and the churches that ran the residential school system. Previously, the federal government said legal reasons prevented them from doing so.

“We will be transferring them over in a format that is readable,” adds Miller.

“When you have a more readable format, there are more opportunities for survivors to access that in a way that is more cohesive and complete to achieve closure and more information on the experience of their loved ones and their own personal experience.”

The records could include information about day-to-day operations at the facilities, admittance records, financial statements, human resource records and teachers’ profiles. Most importantly, the records could reveal medical documentation such as students’ deaths and injuries.

“We preserve the record of these human rights abuses, and promote continued research and learning on the legacy of residential schools. Our goal is to honour Survivors and to foster reconciliation and healing on the foundation of truth-telling,” explains the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Winnipeg’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, based out of the University of Manitoba, was established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada after a 2007 settlement with residential school survivors and the federal government.

As of the end of 2021, the National Centre had the names and records of 4,127 children who were lost through the residential school system. They say there are potentially thousands more, and more research will be conducted once they receive the new records from the government.

They have also said that current records show over 38,000 children were subjected to sexual and serious physical abuse during their time through the Indian Residential School system.

Nationally, Canada operated over 150 Indian Residential Schools for over 140 years. The last residential school in Canada, the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan, closed its doors in 1996.

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their homes and forced to attend the schools and assimilate into settler culture, which included giving youth new names, haircuts and identification numbers.

The federal government pledged more than $320 million to search residential school sites in 2021. Ontario has pledged another $20 million over a three-year span to identify, investigate and commemorate all 18 residential school burial sites across the province.

If you are a residential school survivor, you are able to contact the 24-hour National Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 for support.