First Nations win access to archives of Sisters of St. Ann

First Nations have won access to the private archives of the Sisters of St. Ann, an order of Catholic nuns that ran four residential schools, including the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The Royal B.C. Museum said Wednesday it had signed a memorandum of agreement with the Sisters of St. Ann to provide access to the order’s archives to the museum and to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC.

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The Sisters of St. Ann archives are located on the grounds of the Royal B.C. Museum. Their records have not been made available to the public. The archives are locked and have their own self-contained office space. They are preserved and managed by the religious order.

This month, following the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, B.C.’s First Nations Leadership Council wrote to Premier John Horgan demanding access to the archives. It’s believed the historical records could help to identify the children and locate the remains of other Indigenous children who never returned home.

The Royal B.C. Museum agreed and urged the Sisters of St. Ann to relinquish the records.

“The Sisters of St. Ann have a responsibility to be completely transparent about their archival records related to residential schools,” the museum said in a June 4 statement. “This level of transparency can only help the overall goal of truth-telling and reconciliation.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified, or has information about, more than 4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school.

The Sisters of St. Ann were also involved with the Kuper Island Indian Residential School near Chemainus where 121 children died, St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission and Lower Power Indian Residential School, just south of the B.C.-Yukon border.

The memorandum of understanding says the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, previously known as the Kamloops Indian Band, will also have access to the documents.

Terry Teegee, B.C. regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the agreement is a “good development” for First Nations communities searching for information about former students and loved ones.

“In terms of truth and reconciliation, we’re still in this truth period, especially with the many First Nations students who are still unaccounted for,” said Teegee, who is also a member of the First Nations Leadership Council.

The agreement does not outline what the records may hold, but Teegee said it’s important that whatever exists be released quickly and without bureaucratic barriers to communities seeking answers.

“What we’re looking for is full transparency and making sure the information that is in the archives can be easily accessed,” Teegee said.

Expediting access to the order’s records for Indigenous communities is a positive step on the path of truth-finding and reconciliation, Daniel Muzyka, the museum’s board chair and acting CEO, said Wednesday.

Sister Marie Zarowny, president and board chair of the Sisters of St. Ann, said the order is committed to collaborating in finding the truth and will assist in the process in whatever way it can. “It is of the utmost importance to us to contribute, in any way possible, to transparency and accessibility, and participate in activities that can lead to healing and reconciliation,” she said.

Staff at the B.C. Archives will work with the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre as a “neutral third party” and will begin auditing the Sisters of St. Ann records soon after July 1, when the agreement takes effect. The agreement will remain in effect until the order’s archives are transferred to the B.C. Archives.

The agreement includes plans to complete the transfer of records held by the Sisters of St. Ann to the B.C. Archives in 2025.

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