Certain ‘Indian’ day school records off-limits to public while province conducts investigation

NEW BRUNSWICK – After committing to investigate the history of New Brunswick’s infamous day schools for Indigenous children, the New Brunswick government is now calling on the province’s museum, archives and “other institutions” to make records of the schools available to First Nations communities.

The records include those on the little-known Sussex Vale Indian Day School, also called the Sussex Vale Indian Academy, which was located in present-day Sussex for approximately four decades beginning in 1787.

Experts consider the school to be a precursor to the residential school system in Canada.

The New Brunswick Museum intends to digitize all the records on the Sussex day school.

When asked about the details of the documents to be digitized, Aristi Dsilva, spokesperson with the New Brunswick Museum, said in an email the province is taking the lead role in collaborating with First Nations about the information on the school. Further details were not provided.

The Sussex Vale records, which include three files of letters, petitions, student names and financial information, are temporarily unavailable to the public. Currently, some documents about the pre-Confederate institution are available by searching the archives’ online database.

‘Deeply committed to reconciliation’: N.B. government

Morgan Bell, spokesperson for the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, did not provide specific details about the archival collaboration. In an emailed statement, Bell wrote the government is “deeply committed to reconciliation,” and is looking to build on the June meeting about an investigation in day schools.

“The province has written to the New Brunswick Museum and Provincial archives, as well as the federal government and other institutions, asking them to make any records available to First Nations as well as to the province,” Bell wrote.

In early June, Premier Blaine Higgs announced the government would investigate the province’s Indian day schools, and ask if any children “did not make it home” after attending. It followed the discovery of the remains of 215 children on the site of what was once Canada’s largest residential school, the Kamloops Indian Residential School, near Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia.

Since late May, more than 1,308 graves have been found using ground-penetrating radar near the sites of former residential schools, including 182 in Cranbrook, B.C., 751 in Marieval, Sask., and more than 160 on Penelakut Island, B.C.

In mid-June, Higgs and Aboriginal Affairs minister Arlene Dunn met with First Nations chiefs and elders to discuss how an investigation into day schools and residential schools should happen.

New Brunswick had 12 Indian day schools which were operated by the Roman Catholic Church between 1880 and 1992 and located near First Nations.

Dunn previously said the schools “existed for the same reason” as residential schools: “to take culture away, to really have children assimilate into the European, colonial structure.”

‘Systemic racism at every level’: Grand chief

Making day school documents easily accessible to Indigenous peoples is crucial, said Wolastoq Grand Council Chief Ron Tremblay, as they will help provide closure for families whose grandparents or great-grandparents attended them.

However, he said he’s skeptical of the province’s motives after it rejected the idea of conducting an inquiry into systemic racism in New Brunswick last winter. He said he feels the province will protect the interests of the Catholic and Anglican churches that perpetuated the day schools.

“How can you have a relationship with somebody when you are denied the fact that there’s actually systemic racism at every level of government, enforcement and even businesses,” he said. “It is very frustrating dealing with that.”

Learning about the history from primary sources will help Indigenous peoples “understand why there’s a lack of language, lack of cultural knowledge left because of those schools,” the chief said.

“If you read about the testimonies of past survivors of these schools, they came out being non-speakers because they were prohibited to speak (their) language or practise their spiritual ceremonies.”

Prejudice in archival records: historian

Richard Yeomans is a PhD candidate in history at the University of New Brunswick, who worked as a student assistant at the Provincial Archives in Fredericton. He said the extent of the records on the province’s days schools is still unknown because of how they’ve been categorized in the past.

Yeomans described the process of archiving records as happening with “racial prejudice,” which he said archivists are working diligently to undo.

Prejudice can show up in archival descriptions making certain records difficult to find, he explained. For example, a letter from the 1800s about the Sussex Vale day school could be about the Indigenous students, but that description would have been excluded.

While Yeomans doesn’t specifically know the extent of the work the province is currently conducting with day school archives, he said it’s important to do more than just digitize historical records.

“Provincial and federal governments like to throw around words, sometimes money, but they are not really committed to a spirit of reconciliation that’s reflected in the (Truth & Reconciliation Commission report),” he said.

“(Reconciliation) is working with Indigenous peoples in how (records) are presented to the public. It’s working with them in how they are made available and how they are described.”

The most important lesson to glean from the past, he said, is to learn where we’re at in the present, and day school and residential school history should make non-Indigenous people “uncomfortable.”

“It’s really important for everyone to understand that it wasn’t just something that happened back then. This is something that Indigenous people and other racialized groups continue to live with; those racist attitudes perpetuate in different ways.”

By Robin Grant, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

– With files from Tom Bateman