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B.C. First Nations leaders demand access to Sisters of St. Ann's archives

Last Updated Jun 4, 2021 at 11:20 pm PDT

(Courtesy: Google Maps, Royal BC Museum)
Summary

The archives of the Sisters of St. Ann are housed at the Royal BC Museum, are not available to the public

B.C. First Nations Leadership Council says records held by Sisters of St. Ann could help identify children's remains

The Royal BC Museum is urging the religious order that staffed the Kamloops residential school to relinquish the records

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available for anyone affected by residential schools. You can call 1-866-925-4419 24 hours a day to access emotional support and services.

PRINCE GEORGE (NEWS 1130) — B.C.’s First Nations Leadership Council is demanding the premier grant them access to the archives of the order of Catholic nuns that staffed the Kamloops residential school, saying by agreeing to keep them private the province is complicit in concealing the truth.

The archives of the Sisters of St. Ann are housed at the Royal BC Museum and Archives. They are not publicly available, and are “preserved and managed” by the religious order.

In a letter to John Horgan Friday, the council says unfettered access to these records is crucial given the recent discovery of 215 Indigenous children in unmarked graves on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This letter echoes other requests for access to records held by the Catholic Church that could help identify the children whose remains were found in Kamloops, and potentially help locate the remains of other Indigenous children who never returned home.

Regional Chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations Terry Teegee says there is no excuse for a lack of transparency.

“All the levels of government, and also the church [should] divulge the information that we need to find these children — the many children that are unaccounted for, approximately 4,100 according to the Truth, and Reconciliation Commission, and that number could be higher,” he says.

“Whether it’s the premier, the prime minister, or the archbishop, the feeling is really frustration. This information should be shared, it’s part of the healing journey — not only for First Nations but this country — from this very terrible history, and the genocidal policies that were imposed on Indigenous people. If you’re in power, and you’re a decision-maker, the information should be shared with Indigenous people.”

Teegee points out that six of the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission relate explicitly to finding, documenting, and commemorating children whose deaths have gone unacknowledged.

“Obviously we’re not done with the truth-telling,” he says. “Part of truth and reconciliation is to know where children are, and find them.”

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‘Restrictions on access to these archives is a serious concern to First Nations’

According to the council’s letter to Horgan, the archives of the Sister of St. Ann were moved into the provincial museum following an agreement between B.C. and the order in 2011.

“The agreement entered into between the Sisters of St. Ann and the British Columbia Government has never been shared with First Nations affected, and it is not public,” the letter says.

“We request that you release this agreement to First Nations immediately. The act of concluding such an agreement has been seen as an effort to conceal or limit our access to the entire residential school history in British Columbia.”

Although the exact terms of the agreement are not available, public access will not be allowed until 2027.

When it comes to the records in the archive itself, the council says failing to release them to the First Nations affected is inconsistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). In 2019, Horgan’s government officially committed to ensuring that all B.C. laws are consistent with UNDRIP.

“Restrictions on access to these archives is a serious concern to First Nations, and is not consistent with the Government’s commitment,” the letter reads.

“The Sisters of St. Ann were among those participating in the residential school mission and undertook extensive health and education missions in British Columbia. The archives of the order, and the records of the work they have undertaken, is one of several important sources of information that must be freely shared with First Nations throughout British Columbia.”

Ultimately, the council says the archives need to be opened up or moved out of the provincial facility.

Description of archives, religious order does not mention residential school 

In addition to staffing the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the order founded and operated a residential school in Duncan. Other institutions they staffed included St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, Kuper Island Indian Residential School, and Lower Post Indian Residential School.

The website of the Royal BC Museum and Archives says the privately administered archive “preserves the Sisters of St. Ann’s legacy in the west.” It offers a summary of their work in the region.

“Throughout the years, the education and health care provided by the Sisters of St. Ann in Victoria established them as a vital and important part of the civic community. After their arrival in Victoria, the sisters founded schools, hospitals, and a broad range of programs in communities throughout what they called St. Joseph’s Province—BC, Yukon, Alaska and Washington State,” it reads.

There is no mention of residential schools.

Museum asks Sisters of St. Ann to relinquish records 

The Board Chair and CEO of the Royal BC Museum and Archives issued a statement Friday evening supporting the demands made in the council’s letter, but that the museum “neither stewards nor has access to the records held by the Sisters of St. Ann.”

Dr. Dan Muzyka says the museum can facilitate access to the records if the sisters revisit the 2011 agreement, and transfer the records to the BC Archives.

“The Sisters of St. Ann have an opportunity to clearly identify what records they hold and provide better accessibility of these records to the public — but particularly to Indigenous communities whose members attended residential schools that the order once operated,” the statement says.

The premier’s office confirmed it received the letter Friday, and a spokesperson said Horgan will be responding to the issues raised in the letter within the next few days.

On May 31 a spokesperson for the Sisters of St. Ann said they would make records available to the archivist working with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation to identify the 215 children.

“We share the anguish, and we join in the plea for more answers.”

With files from Robyn Crawford

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