A federal official has blocked the Indian residential school survivor group’s search to name missing children

A federal official has blocked a request from a survivor organization seeking access to a key registry as part of a search for century-old records that he hopes could identify four children who died at Shingwauk and Wawanosh residential schools in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

After exhausting all avenues of research, the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association wanted to search the government’s Indian Status Registry for the names of two boys and two girls who died while attending institutions in the early 1900s. .

Their offer was blocked this month by the registry manager, citing privacy laws to deny a request to search the records.

“Information in the Indian Registry system is personal and as such may only be disclosed with consent or in accordance with the Privacy Act,” wrote John Gordon, the Indian Registrar. , in a letter dated March 16.

“It is not possible to grant you access for the purpose of conducting research.”

Irene Barbeau, 78, president of the alumni association, has since written to Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller asking them to use their authority to grant access to the group .

“It’s frustrating, it’s disappointing,” Barbeaeu said. “We thought there would be more reconciliation from them because they are the ones who created the mess we are in right now.”

The letter to ministers says the association seeks only to search for documents dated between 1900 and 1920 held by the register and any other internal departmental databases.

“The only way left to identify these children is with the cooperation of the departments you lead,” the March 24 letter said.

“We can’t heal, and they can’t truly rest in peace, until their names are known.”

Last fall, the Crown-Indigenous Relations Department emailed a statement to CBC News saying the federal government would be willing to provide “access to information and records to help support reconciliation,” but that it was subject to the restrictions of the federal Privacy Act.

The dining room of the Shingwauk boarding school circa 1890. (Shingwauk Children’s Alumni Association / The Shingwauk Project)

The ministerial offices of Miller and Hajdu released a joint statement via email to CBC News on Tuesday saying the government had “a moral obligation to survivors to seek the truth and ensure access to documents and records.”

The statement said the two ministers will work with their departments “to find a solution so that the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association can continue its important work”.

Meagan McLean, departmental spokeswoman for both departments, said in an emailed statement that officials plan to contact the association for “additional information” because previous searches “had been unsuccessful.”

The ministry statement did not specify where officials had previously searched.

“There is no barrier”

Vivek Krishnamurthy, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and director of the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, said nothing in the Privacy Act prevents the federal government to provide access to the register of statutes for members of the association. specific goal.

“We are talking about identifying the children. This is a matter of the utmost importance… there is no obstacle to cooperation,” said Krishnamurthy, who has helped the association in its efforts to access the folders.

The Indian Status Registry is used to determine who qualifies as a registered First Nations person. It was created in 1951 and centralized identifying information on every person deemed by the government to have status under the Indian Act.

It contains genealogical information on First Nations people dating back to the 1800s.

The Shingwauk Indian Residential School, shown circa 1965, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. (Shingwauk Residential School Centre, Algoma University)

The federal government identified the registry as a potential primary source for determining who attended which boarding school, according to a 2003 internal departmental document describing how an early compensation system works.

Records of students who attended the Anglican Shingwauk – for boys – and Wawanosh – for girls – boarding schools in the early 1900s are scarce. For example, the federal government destroyed Shingwauk student rolls from the years 1907 to 1939, said Edward Sadowski, a researcher who has worked with the alumni association for decades.

The only evidence of the death of the two girls comes from a 1913 Indian Affairs report which stated that they were from the Garden River First Nation and that they died of disease. The girls are not named, but the report notes that one girl was “still frail” and the other as “a poor little paralytic”.

The two boys drowned in a deep pond known as Little Lake behind Shingwauk between 1914 and 1915, but no records have yet been found of their deaths, Sadowski said.

The only evidence comes from a 1981 Shingwauk reunion video and testimony from a former staff member. The bodies of the boys remain buried under a park built on top of the pond.

Researcher Edward Sadowski has worked with Shingwauk survivors for 30 years. He says decades of residential school records have been destroyed by the federal government over the years. (Joe Fiorino/CBC News)

Sadowski said the association searched Anglican archives, Library and Archives Canada and ministry records using the Access to Information Act. They have all gone blank, leaving the status register and other possible internal departmental databases as the only places left to search, he said.

“It’s the only place that still has information about Indigenous peoples and residential schools,” Sadwoski said.

“We have no more options to try to identify these children.”

The alumni association has so far identified 72 children who died at the two schools.