By Brenlee Coates
It’s not too often that an interest in history is a requirement for a job.
But in the case of Ry Moran, who’s been working in Aboriginal language preservation with his production company and statement gathering for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), it’s paramount.
“Documenting oral history is critical,” says Ry. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
While the residential school system is part of Canada’s history, its impact is still very much alive.
That’s why the commission, formed in 2008, is so important: it’s gathered the stories of survivors and those affected by the Indian Residential Schools while the stories are still available. Part of its five-year mandate was to “create as complete an historical record as possible” of the residential school system in Canada.
Ry felt humbled by the opportunity to help document the legacy of residential schools. He was the director of statement gathering, which meant he helped implement statement gathering systems and conduct public hearings. He also hired statement gatherers for each site.
The role of a statement gatherer is to facilitate the sharing of stories – Ry says they had three questions they had to ask, though mostly the job consists of recording and preserving the statements.
Statements could be written or recorded and submitted to the commission, or delivered in private or in public in a sharing circle at one of the TRC’s community events. “It was up to the person to sort of choose what felt best for them,” says Ry.
Most of the statements were gathered at TRC events. Records of statements could then be requested to be kept private or allowed to be publicly shared.
Each statement gathering session would close with a drum group, ceremonial dance or something to “leave on sort of the best note we could,” says Ry.
The sessions usually took a lot out of both the statement makers and gatherers, as they were often emotionally draining for both parties.
It is a difficult but important task to administer the statements, one Ry says was motivated by “fundamentally a desire to help (his) community.”
Ry is well-versed in doing beneficial work in his community; he was named a National Aboriginal Role Model in 2008, largely based on his work with his production company that specializes in services like the preservation of Aboriginal languages.
His company, YellowTilt Productions, created kits that helped people record their languages to enable their preservation.
Ry has also been successful in the folk music scene, winning a Canadian Folk Music Award in 2007 for Best Aboriginal Artist. Though he hasn’t released music in some time, he says music has been no less important to him during his statement gathering post.
“It’s kind of for catharsis. It’s just been my place to get me through it,” he says of the studio.
In addition to collecting oral statements with the TRC, Ry gathered archives from government departments and churches. He will now get to see the fruits of his labour as director for the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
After its final statement gathering event in Edmonton in March, the TRC will be poised with approximately 7,000 statements plus relevant artifacts for use in the national centre.
The University of Manitoba was chosen over other submissions to host the research centre, which will be located in the Chancellor’s Hall building at 177 Dysart Rd.
The brick building overlooking the river will be the temporary home to the research centre opening in 2015. Ry says there will be a dedicated space for the centre in the development plans for the former Southwood golf course land that the university has acquired.
Chancellor’s Hall offers approximately 2,000 sq. ft. for use on the main floor of the building, plus another 5,000 or so for storage.
The collection is primarily digital, though there will be some physical items on display, as well as ongoing seminars scheduled in the space.
Some of the physical artifacts will include DVDs, prints, ceremonial objects, framed statements of apology and reconciliation, and House of Commons bills or comments that pertain to the residential school system. There will also be a reference library, and close to four million records from the RCMP and health records, for instance.
There will even be an artifact of a woman’s hair, because one woman “cut off all her hair” to “represent what’s been done to her,” says Ry.
Students, researchers, and the general public will be able to access public statements, though no personal information about the statement makers will be available unless they gave permission to disclose their identities.
For students interested in this type of work, Ry advises to make use of the oral histories of those closest to you: “I would strongly encourage people to value the history that’s right at their doorstep. Don’t forget granny or your auntie or anyone.”
“You can start right at home. Put your iPhone down and put on the voice recorder.”
He also recommends seeking out microgrants to document oral histories.
“Ask questions like: ‘Who’s the crusty old sound guy who probably knows everything about the punk music scene in Winnipeg?’ Or ‘Who was the first midwife in Winnipeg and has anyone ever talked to her?’” says Ry. “Ask questions and document history.”
Locally, the University of Winnipeg has an Oral History Centre which develops digital audio and video tools for oral history research.
For now, Ry is working solo, but as the launch of the research centre nears, his department will be looking to expand its staff.