Releasing residential school records is a crucial step toward documenting Canada’s genocidal legacy — but the effort will face considerable challenges

Posted on July 4, 2021 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: , – Opinion/Contributors
July 4, 2021.   By Jen Rinaldi, Kate Rossiter, Contributors

Canada is littered with the unmarked graves of Indigenous children. For every unnamed child, there is a web of files and documents that will help tell the story of their life and death.

As the death tally grows, public calls for the Catholic Church to release its residential school records grow louder. Releasing these records is imperative: each child deserves to be named and remembered; each family deserves closure. But releasing residential school records is bound to come with complications that call for careful consideration.

As researchers overseeing the development of an archive of similar institutional records, we have experience navigating those complications. Our archive features records kept on residents of the Huronia Regional Centre, an institution located in Orillia, Ont. that operated from 1876 until 2009.

Huronia housed children and youth with intellectual disability diagnoses, whose parents were pressured to give up custody. Like residential schools, Huronia was a site of poor living conditions and brutal mistreatment. Like KamloopsSt. Eugene’s and Marieval, Huronia’s on-site cemetery houses many unmarked graves. We have worked with institutional survivors to document Huronia’s legacy. Here are some lessons we learned along the way.

Administrative records are so important to make publicly accessible because they can paint a picture of a resident’s everyday life in institutional space. Our own repository includes old photographs documenting residents’ growth. There are letters from home, and written communications between superintendents and parents that track children’s time inside. Medical logs document instances of tuberculosis and venereal disease outbreaks, the use of electroshock treatment and the over-prescribing of sedatives. Behavioural records account for punishments, including the routine use of solitary confinement and physical restraints. Various certificates provide justifications for why a resident was kept institutionalized, or when and how they died.

While records paint a picture of daily life, gaps in institutional reporting are often just as telling in terms of understanding violence. Medical logs kept on Huronia residents tend not to attribute injuries to violent causes — rather, injuries simply appear in resident files. Conversely, resident behaviours — their moments of resistance or acting out — are described in detail, so their catalogues of punishment appear more proportionate. Survivors with histories of sexual abuse have institutional records that call them promiscuous or liars. Survivors with scars from physical abuse can find no recording of the incident. Their documentation can only go so far to make sense of institutional life, because abusers controlled the record-keeping.

The net effect is that sometimes the records themselves can re-harm the impacted population. We have worked for years with institutional survivors to prevent this outcome. We have redacted files so residents are not named, and by extension not connected to dehumanizing language or victim-blaming. We have contextualized records where residents are described as violent — which is an entirely too common learned behaviour in closed systems where cultures of abuse thrive. We have witnessed moments where reading through old files re-traumatizes survivors, leading us to strategize over how to introduce and contextualize the stories that records tell. We have agonized over whether showcasing these stories makes a spectacle of institutional violence. And, crucially, we have learned that archival work is slow and necessitates ongoing informed consent with many stakeholders.

Releasing records is a crucial first step toward documenting Canada’s genocidal legacy. If and when residential school records find their way into the public arena, it is essential that they serve the needs of Indigenous survivors, families and communities. Doing so will require time, care and a deep understanding of institutional trauma.

Jen Rinaldi is an associate professor at the Ontario Tech University. Kate Rossiter is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. They are lead researchers on the Recounting Huronia Project, and are in the process of building a large digital archive about the Huronia Regional Centre which will go live in the winter of 2022. Until then, more information about the restoration of Huronia’s burial site can be found at


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