Recovering residential school survivors’ lost names

When she was 26, Bessie Quirt left her Ontario home to teach at a residential school in the Northwest Territories. “At four o’clock we landed at Hay River,” she wrote in her diary on Aug. 3, 1929. “I could scarcely believe that I was actually in the flesh at the Hay River Indian School.” Seventy-eight years later, General Synod archives staff are reading through Miss Quirt’s faded notes–and hundreds of other documents–to find names of former residential school students.

'St. John's School, Chapleau - William, Philip, and Bernard, 194-,' one of the photos reviewed by archives staff. GENERAL SYNOD ARCHIVES
‘St. John’s School, Chapleau – William, Philip, and Bernard, 194-,’ one of the photos reviewed by archives staff. GENERAL SYNOD ARCHIVES

These names are needed as evidence before former students can receive the Common Experience Payment or join the later Independent Assessment Process, two avenues of compensation available through the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Since many of the original enrolment records have been lost, the federal government commissioned other archives, including General Synod’s, to find proof of students’ attendance in alternate material.

On Aug. 31, General Synod archives will send results from their four-month name hunt to the government. Six researchers have worked since May 2007, trolling through more than 60,000 pages and 4,000 photographs. They have reviewed bishops’ correspondence and scrapbooks, records from the diocese of the Arctic, material from the Missionary Society of the Church of England in Canada, and diaries like Bessie Quirt’s.

“We’re doing everything that we can to make whatever names we have available to the government so that the former students can receive what they’re entitled to,” said Nancy Hurn, General Synod archivist.

Details about students’ deaths and staff members are also collected, as they may be useful for the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Currently commissioners are being selected for this third part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which will educate the public about residential schools, listen to survivors’ stories, and establish a research centre of collected records.

Ms. Hurn said that former students should have reasonable expectations about how much information can be found. There are an estimated 16,000 living students who attended Anglican residential schools and around 2,000 to 3,000 names will be tracked.

Researchers face many challenges when navigating the 150-year history of Anglican residential schools. Few comprehensive school histories exist, many schools were renamed, and sometimes students transferred. Even the number of Anglican schools (officially “over 30”) is not certain, since schools’ affiliations were sometimes unclear.

All information gleaned from this project will be entered into a database, which will be searchable by name and school. “I feel like it puts us in really good stead for the Common Experience Payments, the Independent Assessment, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission down the road, so that we know what we have for each student,” said Ms. Hurn.

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