Researcher hopes rare photos of boarding schools can help identify missing children

About 1,000 black-and-white photos from the early days of the residential school system in Canada have been discovered in the archives of a Roman Catholic order in Rome.

Raymond Frogner, records manager at the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) in Winnipeg, found the photographs earlier this month when he gained exclusive access to the Oblate General Archives to identify residential school records.

He said the images were part of a series of early 20th century photos sent in by priests from various institutions in Canada – including the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, where the discovery of more than 200 presumed unmarked graves was reported in May 2021.

“The photos would give an indication of children who may have been known to be lost,” Frogner said.

“If the photos are dated, we may actually have an indication of where they were.”

Shoes and stuffed animals on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The series contains images of the field where the alleged unmarked graves are located in Kamloops, he said.

The photographs also include images of an unmarked cemetery site next to the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Many tombstones in the cemetery were removed in the mid-20th century. The cleared part of the cemetery was inspected by ground-penetrating radar, which reported 700 potential graves.

Marieval School operated from 1899 to 1997 on the Cowessess First Nation, approximately 140 kilometers east of Regina, Sask.

“This one will be interesting because some of the crosses from the Cowessess graves have been removed,” Frogner said, adding that the images could help reveal when the markers were removed.

An undated photo of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. (General collection of the Saint-Boniface Historical Society)

Although there are handwritten notes on the back of the images found in archives in Rome, he said, they do not identify the children photographed.

Images to digitize

The NCTR is hoping to identify as many of the children in the photos as possible by digitizing the images and sharing them with indigenous communities.

“It is good news that the photos exist and that they have been unearthed,” said Marie Wilson, one of three commissioners who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“It will be a treasure. I hope it’s not too late to play the healing role it could play.”

WATCH | Newly found images could offer clues to missing children

Former TRC commissioner reacts to discovery of rare residential school photos

Marie Wilson, one of three commissioners who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reflects on the significance of recently unearthed photos of the hidden boarding school system in Rome.

Wilson said she was troubled by how long it took to dig up the footage and hopes the photos can be copied and shared as soon as possible.

“I think it has to come to the end and then we have to keep looking,” Wilson said. “More restraint. »

Frogner said that in the five days he spent browsing about 200 years of Oblate records, he also saw the personal files of priests accused of crimes in Canada.

He said the records detailed their career as Oblates, including their vows, service and various missions. They do not provide reports on crimes against children and rarely mention problems working with children, he added.

Any comments in personal files regarding child abuse are presented in the context of the priest’s rehabilitation, he said.

“There is no documentation of the children,” Frogner said.

“The emphasis is on the service of the priest…There has always been a question of how this could be resolved, how could this be resolved within the church.”

In some cases, he said, the documents indicate that a priest was given a mission as “obedience” without providing details.

”I’m sorry’ won’t cut it anymore’

Frogner said that when he asked to see the records of a notorious priest in Cowessess, the file he received was “very thin” and gave no indication of any issues with the way the priest dealt with people. children.

“The worst crime a person can commit is to take away a child’s innocence,” said residential school survivor Evelyn Korkmaz.

“Yet we seem to turn a blind eye and allow these people to move from place to place, committing these crimes for decades.”

Evelyn Korkmaz, a survivor of the former St. Anne’s residential school, says she wants to see all Rome residential school records returned to Canada. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Korkmaz attended the old St. Anne boarding school in Fort Albany, in northeastern Ontario.

The institution, run by the Catholic orders of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Gray Nuns of the Cross, was known for its abuses. Students reported that the school had his own version of an electric chair which was used to shock the students.

Korkmaz will travel to Edmonton later this week for the arrival of Pope Francis, who is visiting Canada on what he calls a “penitential pilgrimage” to bring healing and reconciliation.

“I want to hear Pope Francis take ownership of the crimes committed by the institution he represents,” said Korkmaz, a founding member of the international organization Ending Clergy Abuse, which includes survivors from 28 countries.

“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ won’t be enough anymore. We need action. We want justice.”

Korkmaz, who is also a founding member of Advocates for Clergy Trauma Survivors in Canada, said she suspects there are still relevant documents hidden away in Rome or even the Vatican, despite denials from Canadian bishops.

Comparison of Rome records with those held in Canada

She said she hoped the NCTR would continue to scour church records for clues.

“Those diaries, those records, those photographs should all come back to Canada,” she said. “These documents would help us identify the bodies in these unmarked graves and help close the eyes of the families. That’s all we’re asking for.”

Once copies of the documents are made, Frogner said, the NCTR will compare its findings at the Oblate General Archives with the documents held in Canada.

Raymond Frogner, head of archives at the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, works in the reading room of the Oblate General Archives in Rome. (Supplied/Raymond Frogner)

Frogner’s visit to the Oblate General Archives came a year after the Oblates agreed to expedite access to residential school records.

The Oblates are now preparing to withdraw their longstanding practice of keeping personal records sealed for up to 50 years after a member’s death.

Frogner said he believes the Oblates are making changes and opening up their archives in response to public pressure generated by reports of unmarked gravesites.

“If a bright light hadn’t been shed on the order itself, I don’t know if we would be having this discussion today,” he said.

“I also don’t know that we would have an apology from the Pope and that the Pope would come to Canada to continue these relationships with Indigenous communities.”