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Reconciled to hard truths

Rebuffing accusations of genocide, churches join Aboriginal groups and Ottawa in an effort to account for children who died in residential schools

By Mike Milne

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This spring, as churches, the federal government and Aboriginal groups prepared to take part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Canada’s residential school legacy, the words of Bob Watts began to ring true. A year ago, Watts, the interim executive secretary of the commission, told a conference that “before the truth can heal, it may hurt,” and that reconciliation “may be a messy task and it may bring out uncomfortable truths.”

For the United Church, the task initially meant confronting sensational allegations from Kevin Annett, a self-styled crusader, filmmaker and former United Church minister. In March, as Moderator Rt. Rev. David Giuliano and other church and Aboriginal leaders toured Canada to build momentum for the coming truth and reconciliation process, Annett and a small group of Native supporters picketed Toronto church offices and briefly occupied the city’s Metropolitan United. They demanded information about children who died at residential schools and called the schools an “Aboriginal holocaust.” Later, the group announced its own inquiry into 28 sites across Canada alleged to be “mass graves” containing the bodies of Native children.

Annett, who resigned as minister of St. Andrew’s United in Port Alberni, B.C., in 1995 and was subsequently delisted from the United Church’s ordered ministry, has alleged United Church involvement in pedophile rings, murder and secret burials, as well as church and government cover-ups. The General Council Office has twice issued statements refuting many of Annett’s claims. Now, it is helping to formulate a response to his oft-repeated assertion that upwards of 50,000 Native children died or disappeared at about 130 church-run residential schools. Messy indeed.

Denying allegations of conspiracy is difficult in the best of circumstances because the accuser can label the very denials as further evidence of conspiracy. Most of the churches or religious groups that operated Indian residential schools readily admit the institutions were miserable failures that robbed children of family life, language and culture, and often exposed them to physical and sexual abuse. On its website, the United Church “recognizes the tragic reality that . . . Native children died as a result of illness, disease or accident.” It is now part of a team of government and church archivists trying to determine who, where and how many.

Various Roman Catholic groups ran the majority of schools; Anglicans ran about a quarter. Presbyterians and the United Church account for about a fifth of the institutions. Gaps exist in the documentary record of the century-long history of residential
schools, so total student population estimates range from 80,000 to 150,000; the widely accepted figure is now 100,000. By the mid-1940s, about half of school-age Native children were in residential schools, but by the 1950s — with a 96 percent high school dropout rate — the institutions were falling out of favour. By 1960, only 22.4 percent of Native children attended.
Last year, 86,000 residential school survivors applied for payments from the initial “common experience” portion of the overall $4.5-billion settlement that churches, Aboriginal groups and the federal government finalized in 2006. So far, 68,000 survivors have received payments averaging $17,647.

Once Truth and Reconciliation commissioners are named and five years of hearings and reporting begin in earnest, survivors, their families and communities will be able to tell their stories, creating “as complete an historical record as possible” of the residential school system. The commission will not act as a formal public inquiry. Witnesses will be able to name abusers or victims, but only during sessions out of the public eye. Should allegations of criminal activity come to light, the RCMP will undertake its own investigation.

First, though, church archivists will comb their records in search of information about children who died or went missing at the schools. A working group made up of commission staff, First Nations organizations and survivor groups is figuring out how to complete that work.

Last fall, the United Church convened a meeting of its own archivists. Once a common research format has been adopted, the church will hire a researcher to undertake the estimated three months of work, largely in national and Conference archives.
The central United Church archives were being moved this spring from their former home at the University of Toronto to a first-floor location at the General Council Offices in Toronto’s west end. But residential school records have been continuously available, says United Church chief archivist Sharon Larade.

Searching for missing students, though, is not easy. “The challenge,” says Larade, “is that you are looking for someone who is gone . . . by virtue of absence on the lists. And we don’t have a set of names of students who went missing.”
Researchers will look for mentions of missing students in written reports or from community anecdotes. Quarterly reports listing residential school students — the most comprehensive lists — went to government agencies and are not in church archives. But even these have widely acknowledged gaps.

Research to verify student attendance for initial settlement payments has already exposed missing records from the 1940s and 1950s. Records may have been lost, destroyed in school fires or thrown out in “sampling” to reduce the volume of documents, says Larade. Where direct records such as government quarterly reports are not available, indirect references such as yearbooks or newsletters have helped to fill in the gaps.

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