Views / Opinion

Preserve residential school testimony — as difficult as it may be: Kabatay

The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that first-hand accounts of abuse at residential schools can be destroyed, but columnist Jasmine Kabatay hopes they won't be.

Residential school survivor Geronimo Henry, a Mohawk First Nations member of Six Nations near Brantford, Ont., was called 48 by staff at residential school during his 11 years there.

David Bebee / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Residential school survivor Geronimo Henry, a Mohawk First Nations member of Six Nations near Brantford, Ont., was called 48 by staff at residential school during his 11 years there.

When it comes to preserving history, it can be hard to save what you’d rather forget.

The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that first-hand accounts of abuse at residential schools can be destroyed. The unanimous decision states the information was collected in a "confidential and private process," and that privacy was vital to the undertaking.

I’m disappointed with the decision. And I’m not alone.

Ahead of the ruling, Justice Murray Sinclair, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the country’s historical memory was at stake, according to the Globe and Mail. Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett expressed dissatisfaction that the government did not win control of the material.

The documents will be kept for 15 years, during which time survivors can choose to have their records preserved and sent to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. If not, they will be destroyed.

Though it takes tremendous courage to do so, I’d like to see them preserved.

I understand there are survivors who don't want their story out there because of the horrors they faced. And while I fully support their decision, those stories comprise a long and dark chapter of Canada's history.

Isn’t there some way they can be told without the survivors being identified?

The documents — transcripts, audiotapes, application forms — were collected from 38,000 survivors to evaluate settlements following numerous lawsuits, with a written agreement between the Canadian government and the former students that they would be kept out of public view.

The first-hand stories are uncomfortable, but they're not told to be a comfort; they were told to seek justice for thousands of children across Canada.

If they are all destroyed it erases something Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples can learn from.

The effects from residential schools are felt in many communities to this day, but it is difficult to truly see them. Many of the buildings still standing have been turned into offices or different functions. Some have been destroyed.

But others want people to have that stark reminder. Last year, the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., became an educational centre for people to tour and learn about the sad history.

While we have documentaries, books, and films about residential schools, there can never be too much evidence and proof of what happened.

Preserving these records would add to the body of knowledge, and leave a larger impact in some cases because it’s in the words of survivors.

I hope survivors opt to preserve their records. Their strength and resiliency won’t go unnoticed — for us, and for future generations.

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