Witnesses to the truth: managing the records of difficult times


Speaking notes
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Presented to International Council on Archives Conference
Seoul, Korea
September 6, 2016
Check against delivery

I’d like to start today by telling you a story.

It’s a sad story.

It’s the story of the Indian Residential Schools system that ran in Canada from the 1870s until 1996.

It is truly one of the darkest chapters in the history of my country.

And yet, as the story illustrates, there is always light, even in the darkest places.

Under the Residential Schools system, thousands of First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were removed from their homes and put into the care of state- or church-run schools.

Some of the children were as young as four years old.

The purpose of the schools was to “take the Indian out of the child,” as the saying went.

The children were taken away from the influence of their families in order to better assimilate them into a Canadian society based on European culture.

It is estimated that 150,000 Aboriginal children attended residential schools, or 30 percent of the reference population.

Many of those children sent to Residential Schools were emotionally, physically and sexually abused.

And as many as 6,000 children died, alone, far from their families.  

The impact of the trauma remains today, passed on through generations.


Shirley Williams is a survivor of this shameful system.

She was ten years old when she was taken from her family and placed in St. Joseph’s Boarding School in the town of Spanish, Ontario.

The year was 1949.

The first thing that was taken from her was her name.

Shirley Pheasant became Shirley Williams.

Children were given Christian names, or even a number.

Shirley remembers the school being a grey brick building, ugly and dark in the rain.

She remembers that her “heart locked,” as the gate locked behind her.

And she remembers how she survived.

Once a month, if the children behaved, they could buy candy.

‘Behaving’ usually meant not speaking their language.

Shirley remembers you could buy five jelly beans for a penny.

And she had $2.00 from her father to last her for the year.

Here is the story, in Shirley’s words:

Whenever my true friends or I got sick or lonely, or if we got a scolding or strapping for speaking our language, I would get my bag of jelly beans. We would gather outside and share one jelly bean. The jelly bean had to be eaten and bitten equally by us. None would bite more than the other, but shared equally to wipe away our hurts. She goes on to describe how sharing this single jelly bean helped them to become strong again, so they could “survive and give caring to each other.”

It is a powerful and heart-wrenching story.

Shirley Williams went on to become Professor Emeritus at Trent University’s Native Studies department.

And, as a member of the Bird Clan of the Ojibway and Odawa First Nations of Canada, she has spent much of her life promoting the Nishnaabe language and culture.

It is easy to see how candy could comfort a child, but the lesson of Shirley’s jelly bean is about much more than that.

Sharing the jelly bean was a symbol of something much deeper, much more important.

It was about sharing hurt, and loneliness, and despair.

In that act of sharing, there was healing.


In 1998, residential school survivors launched a national class action lawsuit against the federal government and the churches who ran the schools, alleging widespread abuse and forced cultural assimilation.

In 2006, Canada agreed to settle with First Nations communities over the damage caused by residential schools.

It was a historic moment for our country, and the beginning of a renewed relationship with the indigenous people.

The settlement was not only monetary.

It called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the TRC – to create an accurate historical record of what happened…

…and for the creation of a National Research Centre on Truth and Reconciliation, to permanently house the documentation of the Commission.

The Commission was launched on June 1, 2008, with a very specific mandate:

To report to the Canadian public what happened in the Indian Residential Schools attended by First Nations, Inuit and Metis children, and the lasting legacy of these institutions
…to the end of achieving justice, healing and reconciliation.

One of the most fundamental principles behind the work of the Commission was the need for truth- sharing as part of the healing process.

Nearly 7,000 survivors, and others affected by the residential schools, shared their truth with the Commission.

They gave statements remotely, via the Internet, or at hearings of the Commission, or at national events held across the country.
And this is very important: they got to choose whether they wanted their statements to be public, or private.

Some told their stories in a sharing circle, or in panels held by the Commissioners, often before thousands of people.

Private statements were also given behind closed doors.

Many of the videotaped testimonies – living histories – can be found on the website of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which was established last year.

Let me quote the words of George Erasmus, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations:

If the stories of our people are not accessible to the general public, it will be as if their experiences never occurred. And if their voices are rendered as museum pieces, it will be as if their experience is frozen in time.

These words remind me of those of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, back in 2004, speaking to archivists about the truth of apartheid. 

He said:

We must remember our past so that we do not repeat it.


Between 2010 and 2014, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held a series of national events across Canada.

They took place in seven major Canadian cities.

Their purpose was to educate the public about residential schools, and to give survivors a chance to tell their stories –  what happened to them, and the impact of those experiences on their lives.

Tens of thousands of people attended.

There were sacred fires and sharing circles.

Films were screened, and there were exhibitions, and educational events for school-age children.

Library and Archives Canada – my institution – was there, at six of the seven national events, as well as at the closing ceremonies of the Commission.

We set up tables in the areas known as the Learning Places, alongside the church archives and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

We developed handouts that focused on researching Aboriginal history and locating residential school records, and offered a simple search strategy to identify records in our database.

But what proved to be our most profound contribution to reconciliation was an album of roughly 200 photographs from our collection, which we had created to bring to the events.

There was a great deal of interest in it, as many people recognized themselves or other students in the photographs, as well as the school buildings and grounds.

As the images were identified, more photographs were added, so that finally, the album contained about 300 photographs.

The Commission provided scanner printers so that copies could be made easily for people on site, while other photos were digitized, described online, and posted in virtual galleries on our website, as well as on our Facebook and Flickr channels.

Despite the fact that many of the photographs were institutional – depicting drab buildings, dormitories, and groups of students in formal settings – the process of looking through them triggered powerful reactions, and painful memories.

Sharing these experiences proved to be life-altering and profound.

Not only for survivors and their families, but for members of the public.

And for our archivists who attended these events.

One of our senior archivists remembers that after setting up a chair near the photos, many people simply sat down and began to tell their stories:

It wasn’t easy. We had to wear three hats:

  1. members of the Government of Canada,
  2. archivists, and of course,
  3. human beings.

I remember how sad some people were if their photos weren’t there, as if it meant that their stories never happened.

Many people asked the same question: why did the children have no names?

The air was charged with emotion. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

But I realized that the most important thing I could do, was to listen.

And in the words of another archivist:

At first I was terribly aware of being a white woman, and I wondered how I would be perceived. But I quickly forgot about it. I realized that reconciliation is about all of us, understanding together what happened. As archivists, we seldom get the chance to see first-hand the impact of records on people’s lives. I realized that sometimes, the truth is not simply what is historically accurate.

In listening, there was sharing.

And in sharing, there was healing.


As archivists, historical records form our bread and butter.

They are vital witnesses to the past.

We see our role as helping to complete an accurate and public historical record of that past.  

Neutral. Impartial.

Yet the appraisal decisions we make affect the way history itself is understood.

To quote a former Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Ian Wilson:

We sculpt memory by our cumulative decisions. And, as witnesses die out, only the testimony of the records remains.

Yet in an area as sensitive as the impact of the residential schools on survivors and their communities, the balance between what is public and what is private is delicate. The rights and responsibilities of all the parties involved must be respected.

There is a complex relationship between memory organizations, all levels of government, the records themselves, and the people whose lives may be changed forever by the release of material whose public or private status may not be clear.

In the case of the residential schools, the truth is emotionally charged.

There are an estimated 80,000 former students – survivors – still alive today.

Some of them want their painful memories kept private.

Some of them feel that keeping them private will erase the truth they have struggled so long to uncover.

Like Flora Merrick, who ran away from a residential school because she was denied the right to attend her mother’s funeral.

Who was returned to the school, beaten until she was black and blue, and locked in a dark room for two weeks.

And who wants her story told.

Other survivors see the privacy of their stories as part of reconciliation.

Does the archivist’s goal to preserve documentary heritage and make it available to the public outweigh the individual’s right to privacy?

Can reconciliation processes and other historic events be documented sufficiently without preserving sensitive private information?

Information that may provide a more complete picture?

One of the goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to complete an accurate historical record, with documents kept in perpetuity – forever –  while at the same time promising privacy and confidentiality.

The issue of what happens to some of the records created in the reconciliation process – records that included some of the most sensitive of victims’ testimonies – is now before the Supreme Court, the highest judicial instance in Canada.

Here is the story: in 2014, a judge ruled that the residential school records could be destroyed after fifteen years, unless individual survivors decided they wanted their statements archived at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

In April 2016, the province of Ontario Court of Appeal upheld this decision.

A key question emerged: were the testimonies government records, or not?

The Ontario Court ruled no, but an appeal was lodged with the Supreme Court of Canada. If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case – a decision that will be known in the coming weeks – then it will be up to that court to decide …whether the records are government records, and … whether each survivor must consent to the information about their case, including their testimonies, being archived.

How do we define consent in a situation like this?

Should survivors opt in or opt out?

Will the testimonies be public if survivors do not object, or will the testimonies be destroyed if they do not specifically authorize their preservation?

These are major questions.

In his 2013 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, special rapporteur Pablo de Greiff pointed out that archives are “a means of guaranteeing that the voices of victims will not be lost.”

That they provide “a safeguard against revisionism and denial … and extend the life and legacy of the truth commission’s work.”

Yet as archivists, we find ourselves in a difficult position.

The current focus on social justice around the world means that all archivists are having to rethink their responsibilities, as stewards of the record.

We have to ask ourselves a number of tough questions. 

There is a need to acknowledge the difference between private information and public remembering.

And a need to build an honest and sharing relationship between archivists and those who have been damaged by history.

This takes time, trust, and a commitment to go forward together.


As part of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the Government of Canada was required to provide copies of all the documents related to the residential schools in its possession, including those in Library and Archives Canada’s collection.

We were heavily involved in providing these records to the Commission, which wrapped up its work last year.

Although it was not part of its mandate, Library and Archives Canada provided dedicated research spaces at its main building in Ottawa, as well as in regional offices in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Halifax. 

As a result, the Commission’s researchers were able to identify more than 60,000 files for review, resulting in the digitization of more than 1.5 million pages of records related to the residential schools.

This dedicated space, along with reference support and circulation, included more than 4,500 finding aids, the circulation of nearly 20,000 boxes of records, and responses to nearly 300 complex reference requests.

Research like this is very important – uncovering historical truth allows for meaningful reconciliation.  

And the power of information goes beyond reconciliation.

As a country, we need to reshape our national narrative based on this new information.

This process is ongoing.


Library and Archives Canada has a vast amount of information on residential schools and our indigenous heritage.

This includes attendance forms, daily registers, medical records, floor plans of buildings, records on policy and funding, and transportation records.

Millions of documents from our government holdings have been researched and scanned for inclusion in the archives of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, based at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

We have invested considerable effort in facilitating the research of our records in support of the Commission’s mandate.

And we are committed to making that collection as complete as possible, and to seeing that the history of these schools is better known to Canadians.

This is part of an agreement we have signed with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

But although we are an access organization, with a mandate to make records as open and available as possible, we still have to protect individual privacy.

It’s tricky – and as I mentioned before, the issue with respect to the testimonies of residential school survivors is still being decided by the courts.


By the time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had wrapped up its work in 2015, our role had expanded well beyond the provision of records and help with research.

We had participated in a common understanding of our shared heritage, and contributed to a collective recognition of our story as a country.


As the custodians of Canada’s extensive holdings on the history of our indigenous peoples, we make that collection known in a number of ways.

That collection includes original treaties and land surrenders, some of which date back to 1690.

It also includes annual reports from the Department of Indian Affairs from 1864 on, … thousands of maps and plans relating to reserves, … as well as wampum, parchment, manuscripts, totems, seals, signatures and stamps – the evidence of decisions that shaped our country.

Over the years we have held numerous public exhibitions to display this material, and to help Canadians understand their history.

In February 2016, I was proud to launch the most recent of those exhibitions, this one titled Hiding in Plain Sight, which revealed the struggle for identity faced by the Métis.

We are constantly seeking out partnerships so that more of our collection can be seen by more people, and so that the stories of indigenous peoples can be told through public programs, conferences, and online access.

We’ve also targeted materials related to our indigenous heritage as a priority for acquisition.

And we’re continuing to create digitized records and finding aids for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, as well as creating new, searchable databases.

Our website includes a complete 40-page guide to conducting research on residential schools, as well as specific tip sheets created during the Commission’s national events, along with lists of bibliographies and published sources, and a feature on how to start an archives or resource centre.


While it isn’t related to the residential schools, I am also rather proud to tell you about the launch of a new chapter of Project Naming, one of our most successful programs.

Back in 2001, we teamed up with a training program in Nunavut, the northernmost territory in Canada.

The idea was to digitize and identify historical photos of Inuit from our collection.

Many of the photos had remained unidentified for decades.

The goal was modest: to digitize and identify 500 photographs.

The whole project was expected to be finished within the year.

But the project took on a life of its own.

Since 2001, we have digitized approximately 8,000 photographs and the project is still going.

Nearly one-quarter of the individuals, activities or events portrayed in the images have been identified.

Families and friends have re-connected.

All this information, along with the images, is now available in our database.

And we have expanded the project to include Inuit living in the Northwest Territories, the northern part of the Province of Quebec and the region of Labrador, as well as First Nations and Métis communities in the rest of Canada.

I guess I am not surprised by this success.

The process at the national events of putting names to the faces in the photos taken at residential schools  is ample proof of the power of a name, as a statement of individual identity.

And it is both painful and telling to remember that names were one of the first things the residential schools took away from their pupils.


The recent prevalence of truth and reconciliation commissions around the world has sparked an intense debate about the role of archivists.

Faced with records that reveal disturbing and uncomfortable truths, archivists are now subject to their own kind of secondary trauma.

At a panel held last year in Montreal by the Association of Canadian Archivists, Anglican archivist Melanie Delva spoke about the emotional experience of working with residential school records.

She talked about her reaction to reading through the archival records of a seven-year-old boy who had been sent to St. George’s Indian Residential School in Lytton, British Columbia.

The records included correspondence between the principal of the school, the Indian agent, and Michael’s family.

The little boy came down with influenza during an epidemic, and when it was clear he would die, his family asked that he be sent home, so that he could die with his family.

The request was denied.

He died in the school, and was buried on the grounds.

When the family asked if his body could be returned so that he could have a traditional burial, it triggered a wave of letters back and forth between the principal and the Indian agent about who should pay the costs.

In the end, the family was told that they would have to pay for everything.

Melanie remembered putting the file back in the box, throwing up, and then taking out the next file.

“File after file. Box after box.”

After her talk, she got a standing ovation.

As an archivist, she wanted to be the neutral custodian, but she couldn’t be.

She had trouble sleeping, and she often had nightmares.

There were health support workers at every event of the Commission she attended, but she could never bring herself to approach them. In her words:

I represented the oppressor. Who was I to complain? The horror I was experiencing was only a fraction of that which indigenous people in this country have experienced and continue to experience.

And yet, as she also said, we can’t ignore the past, simply because it is traumatic.

The archive itself “refuses the comfort of forgetting what should not be forgotten.”

Perhaps, as part of a national process of healing, some of the sharing that needs to happen is within our own profession.


When I first arrived at Library and Archives Canada, I said that our fundamental mission was to help Canadians know themselves.

As we uncover the truth about our history, we get to know ourselves better.

We may not always like what we find, but sometimes, as in the case of our indigenous peoples, sharing the truth offers the chance for healing.

And for genuine reconciliation.

Thank you.

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