A Tale of Two Solitudes? Historians, Archivists, and New Brunswick’s Indian Day Schools

By Richard Yeomans

Since the announcement made by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation on May 27, 2021 that the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found in an unmarked mass grave, the discovery has been reported as a tragic and gut-wrenching reminder of the realities of Canada’s violent settler colonial past and present. Oral histories about the school had long suggested that numerous children attending the school never made it home; according to Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir, “[We] had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths.”[1] The importance of oral histories to the living memories of Indigenous communities across Turtle Island cannot be understated.

But settlers calling the uncovering of the remains of Indigenous children on the grounds of former Residential Schools a ‘discovery’ is not unlike saying Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ North America since it was, after all, news to everyone but the survivors of the Residential School system and the Indigenous communities of which they are a part. This is, I think, an example of where words fail us, but also an important moment where the mechanism used by white settlers to cling to the myths we tell ourselves about Canada is exposed: whether we are conscious of that action is another point entirely. Still, the news out of Kamloops has had a significant impact from British Columbia to Newfoundland and is marked by the growing call to search the grounds of known Residential and Indian Day Schools using ground-penetrating radar. The remains of more children have already been found at other former Residential Schools, and the total has and will continue to rise long past the publication of this post.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Unfortunately, that same technology cannot be used to scour archives across Canada to locate records related to Residential and Indian Day Schools, and many documents on such schools were purposely buried or destroyed by Federal Government and Church institutions alike. Nevertheless, in New Brunswick that task of archival reconnaissance has recently been taken up by historians in the University of New Brunswick’s Department of History, who, in their own words, are trained to locate these documents and have offered their assistance to Indigenous nations, communities, or persons seeking research assistance.[2] The message is an important one, and a similar offer has already been extended by faculty at Nipissing University, with hopefully more to follow from other universities and in other provinces. But as settler scholars across Canada volunteer their expertise, it is important to recognize that in the last few decades archivists across Canada have been assisting Indigenous Peoples with locating and accessing documents held in settler archives. Most recently, the Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives has published a draft for public review of its “Reconciliation Framework for Canadian Archives,” and is developing a formal response to the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #70 – that the federal government provide funding to the Association of Canadian Archivists to commence, in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples, a review of archival practices in Canada.[3]

Historians are not uniquely equipped to search an archives, and some do not even use archives in their own research. But archivists are prepared to help Indigenous Peoples recover archival records and give those researchers the space to read them for themselves. Minority groups often have a keen sense of what documents are saying that historians from the dominant settler society are often blind to. As Indigenous Peoples access those documents, they will be better able to ask historians (settler or otherwise) to help contextualize them.

Archivists at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (PANB) have been working diligently to update and publish research guides for the better integration of Indigenous culture, knowledge and traditions within the settler archives.[4] Indeed, the Calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have resonated in archival repositories, and archivists are actively working to decolonize forms of selection, arrangement, and description. Archivists at PANB have been assisting Indigenous researchers and communities for decades and will undoubtedly continue to strive to service all members of the inquiring public.

Historians, on the other hand, seldom discover new and illuminating documents. More often, I would argue, we discover finding aids prepared by archivists who have dedicated countless hours to the preservation and management of various forms of historical records (both oral and textual). The problem, if it is to be stated as such, is that historians and archivists engage relatively little with one another in matters of discourse, but ultimately aspire toward a similar goal. Historians and archivists are equal partners in the effort to do (H)istory, but archivists are constantly labouring in its preservation and accessibility. Likewise, historians are storytellers who find meaning amongst the various pieces and traces of the past but must rely on archivists when, for example, documents related to Residential Schools in Nova Scotia might be in London. This happens not because those documents are being hidden, but because of how the principles of provenance and original order shape an archives.

Sometimes it is easy for historians to criticize an archivist, or more generally, an archives, because, like two solitudes, the intricate ways in which they are linked belie their similarities to each other. In 2021, both historians and archivists have a role to play in the larger Calls to Action of the TRC. For faculty at UNB and beyond, this means assisting those persons or communities that reach out (and hopefully they do), but also committing to the teaching of Canadian History in a way that challenges the kinds of pedagogy that supports settler narratives of the past which buttress the many myths about a benevolent Canada. In the archives, finding meaningful and effectual ways to overcome and reverse decades of discounting non-settler records, forms of racist or discriminatory record description, and ensuring that whatever barriers there are between Indigenous communities and the archives are dismantled is paramount. It’s a long list, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Richard Yeomans is a PhD Candidate in UNB’s Department of History and is currently working at PANB as a Student Archival Assistant in the Government Records Unit.

The Provincial Archives of New Brunswick is open for in-person appointment only (Pending change as New Brunswick adjusts public health guidelines on the province’s path to green). The archives is open by appointment from 9:00am – 5:00pm through the week, and on select Saturdays each month. To book an appointment and for more details, please call at 506-453-2122 or online at https://archives.gnb.ca/. Archivists at PANB are working to gather information, find and list records related to New Brunswick’s Indian Day Schools, the New England Company, and individual actors such as Rev. Oliver Arnold as part of their forthcoming Indigenous History Research Guide. Below is a (very) non-exhaustive list of documents relative to those topics, listed here to encourage readers and researchers to reach out to archivists at PANB:

MC1721 Frederick Dibblee Fonds     (Container #23252)

MS1     Diary of Rev. Fredrick Dibblee, 1815-1825

MC939 New Brunswick Museum Loyalist Collection: 1781-1800    (Microfilm Reel F9829)

MS63   Sussex Academy Papers

Item no. 20 to 50 include correspondence relative the New England Company, the Schools, petitions for appointment made to the House of Assembly relative to the school and its staffing, agreements for the construction of a school building, returns of students at the Sussex Vale Indian Day School, contracts of indenture for Indigenous students, and instructions to missionaries, 1786-1833.

MC1804 Jarvis Family Fonds: 1763-1922

F4        Munson Jarvis, 1768-1785 Correspondence (Reel F13701)

Item     3.         Oliver Arnold. Sussex Vale, New Brunswick, June.13, 1783

F3        Munson Jarvis, July-Dec. 1791                                   (Reel F13702)

4.         Oliver Arnold. Sussex Vale, New Brunswick, July. 25, 1791

F1          Munson Jarvis. Jan.-Dec. 1799          (Reel F13703)

10.       Oliver Arnold. Sussex Vale, New Brunswick, Feb. 23, 1799

F2              Munson Jarvis, Jan.-Dec. 1800       (Reel F13703)

15.       Oliver Arnold. Sussex Vale, New Brunswick, June. 30, 1800

[1] Quoted in the Toronto Star, “Mass grave of Indigenous children discovered in Kamloops BC,” May 31, 2021.

[2] Statement issued by the UNB Department of History, May 31, 2021 (via Twitter: @UNB_DeptHistory).

[3] “A Reconciliation Framework for Canadian Archives,” A Draft for Public Review produced by the Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives, July 2020, https://archives2026.files.wordpress.com/2020/07/reconciliationframeworkforarchives_july2020_en.pdf [accessed June 18, 2021].

[4] Leanne Hudson, “Integration of Indigenous Culture, Knowledge and Traditions: A Guide for Understanding the Intersection of Archives and Indigenous History in New Brunswick,” Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, October 2020, https://archives.gnb.ca/Documents/ICKF/IntegrationOfIndigenousCultureKnowledgeAndTraditions_en-CA.pdf [accessed June 18, 2021].

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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