VICTORIA – An order of Catholic nuns whose members worked at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia says it has reached an agreement to improve access to its private archival records, following mounting calls for transparency.
The Sisters of St. Ann and Royal BC Museum say in a joint statement they have signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance access to the documents for both the museum and the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of B.C.
It says the needs of the Indigenous community are at the centre of the records review process and the agreement will also make the documents accessible to the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc, as requested.
The First Nation said last month that what are believed to be the remains of 215 children were found by ground-penetrating radar at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“We affirm our commitment to collaborate in finding the truth and will assist in the process in whatever way we can,” Sister Marie Zarowny, president and board chair of the Sisters of St. Ann, said in the statement.
The nuns will contribute in any way possible for transparency, healing and reconciliation, she added.
The Congregation of Sisters of St. Anne, based in Quebec, said on its website that its nuns in B.C. taught at the residential school from 1890 to 1970 and they were also involved in three other residential schools.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc could not immediately be reached for comment.
The agreement aims to make the residential school records, and associated records containing information about the Sisters of St. Ann’s involvement at residential schools, accessible to Indigenous communities with a goal of digital sharing, the statement says.
The transfer to BC Archives, housed at the museum, of all records held by the Sisters of St. Ann Archives was originally scheduled to occur in 2027 and has been accelerated to 2025, when the Collections and Research Building opens.
Calls have grown for the release of residential school records since the discovery of the unmarked graves was announced last month.
On June 4, the First Nations Leadership Council penned a letter to Premier John Horgan calling for the immediate release to First Nations of the Sisters of St. Ann’s records, already held at the museum through an agreement.
The museum responded with a statement in support of the council, but said the order had its own locked and self-contained office space and managed the records independently of the museum.
Terry Teegee, B.C. regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the agreement is a “good development” for First Nations communities searching for information about former students and loved ones.
“In terms of truth and reconciliation, we’re still in this truth period, especially with the many First Nations students who are still unaccounted for,” said Teegee, who is also a member of the First Nations Leadership Council.
The agreement does not outline what the records may hold, but Teegee said it’s important that whatever exists be released quickly and without bureaucratic barriers to access for communities seeking answers.
“What we’re looking for is full transparency and making sure the information that is in the archives can be easily accessed,” Teegee said.
The new memorandum of understanding takes effect July 1 and will remain in place until the review, processing and transfer of records to the BC Archives is complete.
Staff at BC Archives will work with the history and dialogue centre, as a “neutral third party,” to begin auditing the holdings next month, the statement says.
The history and dialogue centre and National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation will also work with the signatories to ensure transparency.
“All archives from organizations that were involved with residential schools can play a role in the process of truth-finding and reconciliation,” said Daniel Muzyka, the museum’s board chair and acting CEO.
Speeding access to the records for Indigenous communities is a positive step along that path, he added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021.