Current Problems

Missing Children and Burial Information (71-76)

Indian residential school survivors and families deserve an easy-to-use database of names and records

July 3, 2024


The Globe and Mail: A parting commitment to reconciliation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – regardless if he remains as Leader and/or the Liberals win the next election – would be to commit to real Indigenous data sovereignty.

Two terms ago, Mr. Trudeau vowed to fulfill all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action.

Every First Nations person living in Canada raised their eyebrows to that promise. We hoped this would be the case, but knew it was unrealistic – the scope of that promise was too great and not unlike the U.S.-devised Marshall Plan to economically rebuild Europe.

But it would be the right thing to do for the Liberals to commit to real change when it comes to Indian residential school (IRS), day school and Indian hospital records, by investing in a centralized database. Last week, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu announced a new “interactive mapping tool and environmental scan report” of the 140 federally recognized schools. The map is intended to help families and communities learn more about former school sites and buildings.

Great. But what we really need is a database where you could plug in a name and a list of records would appear. This database would be controlled and owned by Indigenous people, not by any government source or institution.

This idea is not new. An Indigenous archive would prioritize survivors and the children whose lives are documented in the records over protecting the perpetrators, notes Kimberly Murray, Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools. “Survivors, their families, and communities have the right to know the truth,” Ms. Murray told me on Wednesday, just as her office released its “Sites of Truth, Sites of Conscience” report. The document builds on the TRC’s work, illustrating how colonial laws led to the deaths of Indigenous children and to the neglect, abandonment and desecration of their burial sites.

Since the Kamloops Indian Residential School discovery three years ago, every single IRS gathering I have been to has had a singular, common theme: Finding our relations is complicated, and no one knows where to start or where to look.

I’m a journalist who has spent the past few years writing a book about residential schools (titled The Knowing), and had the support of highly trained archivists in hunting down records for my own family. Not everyone has this access.

Canada can no longer be a colonial gatekeeper by withholding the information it has. Archives are systems of power that control information. The TRC found an inherent conflict in the mandate of Canada’s national archives and the duty to educate and inform Indigenous peoples by providing our records.

The TRC called on Library and Archives Canada to protect Indigenous peoples’ inalienable right to know the truth about human-rights violations committed against them in the IRS system. But wide public access is blocked by a lack of funding to LAC and as such, they are unable to easily digitize most of what they have and hand it over.

The Canadian government, along with Pope Francis, have admitted a genocide has occurred here against Indigenous peoples. There are obligations to fulfill in telling the true history of Canada under international law.

We need a standalone, Indigenous-owned and run database that answers to no one – no Canadian or provincial government or institution. It can be done. Take, for example, the website This website is the global home for Jewish genealogy. Click on it and up pops access to millions of records from around the world. You can search via surnames and given names, but there are also options for searching phonetically if you don’t have a proper spelling.

There is no reason why we can’t have something similar here. With the increasing power of AI, creating a website like this is no longer an impossible feat. In the age of corporate responsibility, creating this for all would be a proper use of donations.

The state has responsibilities under international human-rights laws as crimes against humanity have been committed here – the violent separation of our people off the land to make way for settlers, forced transfers of children to Indian residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, high rates of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and the corresponding loss of languages, cultures, human life. Canada has a duty to remember history and to make sure it is told properly and publicly. The right to truth is a collective right – for all Canadians.

As Ms. Murray has told me, state and church archives, much like legal and educational institutions, can either serve to perpetuate settler amnesty and a culture of impunity, or do the opposite and strengthen truth.

How we get there is with Indigenous data sovereignty.