The recently opened National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba houses some of the most important documents in Canadian history.
The NCTR is a result of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement signed in 2007. In the summer of 2013, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) agreed to give the university the responsibility and honour to host this national archive and research centre.
In the fall of 2014, a blessing ceremony marked the move of the NCTR into Chancellor’s Hall. Although the centre won’t officially open for a few more months, many visitors have already passed through their doors.
A large stone turtle lies on the grounds of the centre. The turtle’s head faces east, symbolizing new beginnings. Inside, visitors are met with the scent of sage and welcomed by executive assistant Trina McKellep, a member of the Opaskwayak First Nation. A bowl of tobacco prayer ties sit on a table nearby.
Nicole Courrier, a Métis graduate student in archival studies who works at the centre, said it is important for Elders to be met at the door with these two sacred medicines.
A large gathering room houses gifts of reconciliation gathered during the TRC national events. Various artifacts representing the history of residential schools are on display, including an album cover from the Portage Indian Student Residence Glee Club and a broken chalice from the United Church of Canada. Both are a poignant reminder of failed promises.
A sitting area offers a meeting place for residential school survivors and their families. Métis student and archival studies graduate Jesse Boiteau said the centre was “homey” and emphasized the need to provide a space that is welcoming and safe.
The research room contains several computers. Here survivors, their families, students, and researchers can access and learn from the residential school records.
The kitchen provides a place for sharing food and beverages – Courrier and Boiteau have already joined survivors who have visited the centre for coffee.
A quotation from Edmund Metatawabin, a Mushkegowuk author and residential school survivor, runs along a wall.
“There is no concept of justice in Cree culture. The nearest word is kintohpatatin, which loosely translates to ‘you’ve been listened to.’ But kintohpatatin is richer than justice – really it means you been listened to by someone compassionate and fair, and your needs will be taken seriously.”
The centre provides a space that allows the words of survivors to be heard and remembered. Ry Moran, the centre’s director, described the NCTR as an archive for residential school records that is “centralized, safe, and under Indigenous control.”
Although Indigenous people have been archiving their history for millennia using a variety of methods, up to now “there have been few options for institutional large-scale preservation of Indigenous materials,” said Moran.
The NCTR archive includes millions of digital copies of documents and photographs from federal government departments, churches, and Library and Archives Canada.
Moran said that “by virtue of pulling all these records together that have been disassociated and disparate, we are able to see the big picture.”
Digitization and centralization of the records will allow wide access to the public material. Moran hopes that satellite centres in Indian and Métis Friendship Centres will provide access in remote communities throughout the country.
Website access to the database has been designed to be easy and intuitive. Recently, digital kiosks were set up to show community members and the public what the new website will look like.
Courrier said that during the TRC’s final event this year, the public response was very positive.
Community members in remote locations will be provided with what Moran called “robust access” to videos through adaptive streaming. This technology automatically detects bandwidth and CPU capacity of users’ devices, allowing users to access media streamed over a wide spectrum of connection speeds.
This coming autumn, Moran and staff members Kaila Johnston and residential school survivor Rose Hart will visit communities to gather further feedback on the centre.
The centre’s future plans include preserving documentation of other historical actions of assimilation, such as the removal of children from their families for outside adoption (known as the Sixties Scoop).
“Although the spiritual heart of the centre will always be the survivors and the work done by the TRC, real understanding of reconciliation and the history of aggressive assimilation in the country needs to contemplate other events [in addition to residential schools],” said Moran.
The NCTR, as Moran envisions, “is the start of a bigger journey of bringing more Indigenous records together.”
Courrier and Boiteau appreciated the opportunity as graduate students to work at the centre.
Courrier is “confident the NCTR will be a place where survivors and their families can heal, and that academics and the general public will use the NCTR as a place to educate and inform and be educated and informed.”
University members are welcome to visit the centre.
“The coffee is always on,” said Moran.