WINNIPEG – The University of Manitoba is set to become “Canada’s national memory” of the country’s residential schools and the experience of those who spent their childhood institutionalized there.
The university will house the national research centre for residential schools as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A signing ceremony between the university and commission establishing the archive was scheduled to take place Friday morning.
The archive will hold millions of documents collected by the commission including thousands of stories from residential school survivors.
Commission chairman Murray Sinclair said the research centre is an important part of the commission’s legacy.
“It’s kind of hard to believe that a government would have done what the government of Canada did to aboriginal people by taking away their children and institutionalizing them for all of their childhood and expecting that they would turn out to be normal, functioning human beings,” Sinclair said in an interview.
“But that’s what they did. Most people have a hard time accepting that the nature of the institution was as abusive as it was and that children were physically injured and damaged and in some cases died in schools in large numbers.”
This new archive — which will include documents from the Catholic church, government of Canada and the national library — will help keep that chapter of Canada’s history alive, he said.
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their families and forced to attend the government schools over much of the last century in a bid to “take the Indian out of the child.” The last school closed outside Regina in 1996.
The $60-million truth and reconciliation commission is part of a landmark compensation deal between the federal government, the Crown and residential school survivors. It has visited hundreds of communities and has heard graphic details of rampant sexual and physical abuse.
The commission has amassed about three million records so far and Sinclair said he expects the final archive will include another six million documents. Many of the documents will be in electronic form so people across the country will have access to them, Sinclair said.
“The intent is that we want to be able to create a place where Canada’s national memory will always have this information available to it to remind itself from time to time that this country did indeed do it to its original citizens,” Sinclair said.
David Barnard, president of the University of Manitoba, said he’s honoured and humbled that the archive will be housed on campus. The centre is vital to understand the country’s history, he said.
“There is a wealth of research to be done on this material from a historical, cultural and social perspective to understand the forces that have been at play in forming the country and how we move forward together,” Barnard said.
“It’s not just a frozen moment in the past. It’s something that has a continuing impact on the lives of people in Canada now. The work of the commission brings things out and the work of the national research centre is to keep that as part of our collective memory so that we can move on to reconciliation.”
Manitoba’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said he’s happy to be celebrating National Aboriginal Day with the signing ceremony establishing the national research centre in the province.
“It is a fitting location for the archives,” he said in the legislature Thursday.