UBC struggles to acquire records for ‘nuanced’ residential school information database

Seven months after opening, the UBC Indian Residential History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) still doesn’t have all the records it needs to complete its mission.

And signs of improvement are slow to come.

In a September interview with The Ubyssey, Associate Director of Data and Curation Elizabeth Schaffer said she expected archival holdings gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about BC’s Indian Residential School system to be available upon her arrival.

But the Centre still does not have all of the records, which it needs to conduct its programming.

Director for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) Ry Moran was unable to provide specifics about how many documents pertain to BC. He also could not comment on why Schaffer had this expectation, adding no documents were legally promised.

“If we look back at the agreements, [they] don’t specify any sort of specific quantity of records, they specify a relationship,” Moran said.

“They talk about how we’re going to work on this material together.”

Nuanced access

Even if UBC had all the records it needed, the Centre wouldn’t be complete overnight because it needs to ensure the protection of private information.

According to Schaffer, the IRSHDC works under a strict mandate informed by Indigenous protocol to allow for nuanced levels of access.

Since these documents are considered government records of the Indian Residential School System, they could be made public through freedom of information requests. But the Centre believes access should be tiered to protect sensitive records, like survivors’ testimonies about their experiences.

“We take a position here that even though technically we could make some of those records [publicly] available, we choose not to because we are a dialogue space that is designed to listen and ... figure out ... to whom they should be accessible,” said Schaffer.

“It’s a very ethical approach ... and it takes time to do well.”

Moran echoed these sentiments, “We have to recognize that this is very personal for a lot of people.”

Schaffer said the IRSHDC needs more access to the full set of documents to improve their database — and that their mandate to safeguard private information makes the situation complex to navigate.

“There are many [private] records that ... we wouldn’t publish on our sites, but we need to use to develop our site with robust permissions and access that we haven’t been given yet,” she said.

”Working in the right direction"

Schaffer arrived expecting the Centre would have the materials it needed to begin operations. Instead, she said she had to build relationships from the ground up.

“I think when I came on board to do this work, I had anticipated that we would have more collaboration and greater access to far more records to build a robust system on the coast for Western Canada availability,” she said.

“That hasn’t happened, yet. I'm hoping it will.”

The Memorandum of Agreement between the IRSHDC and the NCTR states the designated UBC contact is the director of the First Nations House of Learning until a director is appointed at the IRSHDC. While Dr. Linc Kesler was technically still in his role as the director at the IRSHDC between the April 9 opening and June 1, it was unclear who served as the liaison after the Centre ‘opened.’

“You know I’m not certain to tell you the truth,” said Moran, who was unable to name the UBC point of contact during this time.

In a written statement to The Ubyssey, UBC Vice-Provost and Associate VP Academic Affairs Eric Eich said contact between the centres was then “primarily at the staff level” and that “researchers and archivists worked on the exchange of records and data under the process initiated by leadership.”

Still, Moran is optimistic about their ability to resolve the issues.

“Everybody is working in the right direction,” Moran said. “Obviously the goal is to get things a little more synced up. But I think we're going to look back on this time ... and say ‘You know, the ... misalignment of about a 10 or 12 month period is going to be quickly rectified.’”

He anticipated that the process would speed up once the centres finalize their data sharing agreements, adding that he has recently been in contact with IRSHDC Director Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. Moran said UBC and the NCTR did not finalize their data sharing agreements before the centre’s opening because “sometimes, this stuff takes time,” especially as they are “charting new ground.”

“We build the bridge together as we walk on it,” said Moran.