By Derek Craddock
While a search for residential school documents from Prince Albert is hitting many obstacles and leaving some frustrated, the local Diocese says it’s doing what it can to help.
On Oct. 25, Saskatchewan’s Treaty Commissioner was asked to speak in front of the Senate Committee for Indigenous Peoples. There she relayed the difficulty her office has had obtaining documents for four residential schools: St. Michael’s in Duck Lake, Beauval, Delmas, and St. Anthony’s in Onion Lake.
Mary Musqua-Culbertson, the Treaty Commissioner for Saskatchewan said the Senate Committee has been investigating barriers to accessing documents and supporting communities that have residential school sites or are in charge of GPR (ground penetrating radar) projects about missing children and unmarked graves.
The request to access these documents first started in June 2021, following the discovery of 215 possible unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site.
“We have a timeline, and it lays out the difficulties and the barriers and so that’s why I was there to primarily give evidence,” Culbertson said.
She said they contacted the Prince Albert Roman Catholic Diocese and were promised by the bishop at the time that church records would be released. However, they later found out that the bishop had retired and a new bishop, Steven Hero was being appointed.
It wasn’t long after that and numerous phone calls to the Diocese that Culbertson said that they received a letter stating that the Diocese “never owned or operated any residential school.”
“Now someone replies to you like that, would you be shocked, that there’s denial right away? It’s like a corporation protecting itself,” she said.
“They denied that there was a commitment to share documents in the Diocese archives, and they stated that some St. Michael documents were microfilmed by the Saskatchewan Archives Society and were available in Regina and that some were held at Saint Paul University.”
However, Culbertson claimed St. Paul University told them they had no records belonging to the Prince Albert Catholic Diocese and that they needed permission from the Diocese to view the microfilmed documents.
Speaking with paNOW, Bishop Steven Hero said his Diocese has done everything it can to support the search for residential school documents since June 2021.
In response to the letter and claims of denial from Culbertson, Hero said the Diocese was speaking truthfully.
“The Catholic Diocese of Prince Albert didn’t own or operate any residential schools in our territory. They were owned and operated by Catholic religious congregations,” he said. “So, we have relatively few documents in our archives from the schools.”
Schools like St. Anthony’s, Delmas, and St. Michael’s were operated by Catholic organizations within the church like the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and the Faithful Companions of Jesus. Despite having several missionaries in the area in the last 19th Century, the Prince Albert Catholic Diocese wasn’t officially formed until 1907.
The Oblates have previously apologized for their involvement in residential schools and the harm they inflicted on Indigenous Peoples. Rev. Ken Thorson of the OMI Lacombe Canada based in Ottawa said in a news release that transparency is critical to truth and reconciliation efforts.
“While it has been a constructive year of partnership, I know that these steps are only the beginning of a continued journey towards truth, justice, healing and reconciliation.”
The Oblates operated 48 residential schools, including the Marieval Indian Residential School at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The St. Alban’s (All Saints) Indian Residential School in Prince Albert was run by the Anglican Church of Canada. The Church responded to paNOW saying “All student records in our possession were transferred to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.” Those records are available online.
Hero said they have been able to share some documents they have, but noted they don’t have everything in their registers.
“We have some documents relating to the schools and the Diocese of Prince Albert gave copies of those documents to the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) in 2016, and those are now housed at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
We invited their researchers here. We gave them a tour of our archives. We gave them lists of all the documents that we have so that they could take away with them and they could request to see anything they wanted but those documents are also at the National Centre.”
Hero admitted the Diocese asked for a confidentiality agreement as some of the parish records contained personal information not just about children that went to the schools but of other community members.
Another obstacle that the Office of the Treaty Commissioner has revealed is translating the documents from French to English. Culbertson said that when tracking down documents for the Beauval Residential School, they were shocked to find out they were in Richelieu, Quebec.
Culbertson said they have been working with Dr. Winona Wheeler, the department head of Native Studies to help collect these documents and thankfully have hired French translators.
She expressed her disappointment at not having archivists from the Vatican appear before the Senate Committee for Indigenous Peoples because they can’t read French.
“That’s a poor excuse when you have a senate that’s all translators in order to make sure that documents that evidence is being presented in a fair manner that everyone has access to.”
Hero said the Diocese will continue to assist Indigenous people access information they need, including helping the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in its journey to find residential school records.
“We have several First Nations communities, there are groups in the Diocese that are researching their history and the history of the school that was in their area,” he said. “So we’re cooperating actively with those projects.”
At the end of the day, Culbertson said this mission is more than just finding documents and pieces of paper, it’s about closure and righting the wrongs done to Indigenous peoples.
“That does not matter who it is, whether it’s the Government of Canada, whether it’s the operators of schools, whether it’s personnel who works in schools, or religious organizations and entities,” she said.
“Because nobody is coming with clean hands and some of the narratives that are out there from people who will represent these organizations coming to the table at the Senate Committee hearing can be quite shocking.”
paNOW has reached out to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation for their input on this story.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
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