OTTAWA — After a week of national grieving at the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, the federal government is still leaving the power to find Canada’s lost and missing children in the hands of the Catholic Church.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged Friday that he has unspecified “tools” and “processes” at hand to compel the disclosure of records from church-run residential schools.
But he said forcing the Catholic Church to release all documents potentially related to unmarked burials of residential schoolchildren is a not an option he wants to take. Yet.
“I think if it is necessary, we will take stronger measures,” Trudeau told a news conference on Parliament Hill. But for now, the prime minister is urging individual Catholics in Canada to pressure their priests and bishops to do the right thing “before we have to start taking the Catholic Church to court.”
Trudeau expressed his personal disappointment “as a Catholic” that the church and its leader, Pope Francis, refuse to formally apologize for the tragic legacy of the residential schools, or to hand over all documents, unlike other churches that ran residential schools for the federal government, which have complied with those requests.
The prime minister said that in 2017 he directly asked Francis “to move forward on apologizing, on asking for forgiveness on restitution, on making these records available. And we’re still seeing resistance from the church, possibly from the church in Canada.” The pope declined to issue an apology in 2018.
Yet researchers say the federal government possesses copies of many of the church-generated documents after Ottawa reached the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and assumed liability and the cost of compensating victims.
When asked why the government does not compel the disclosures and rescind all agreements over the sharing of those documents — under which churches continue to have a say over whether and what form any release occurs — Trudeau said he thinks public pressure can work.
“We do have tools that we can use if necessary, although I think it would be better for everyone if we were able to do this in partnership and in the spirit of agreement,” he said.
He added that he is “very hopeful that the Catholic Church will very soon change its approach,” telling a Ryerson University audience later Friday that he hoped that change would happen “in the coming days.”
The prime minister’s office later said Trudeau has not had any conversations with senior church leaders in the past week to achieve that goal.
In fact, Trudeau’s statements contradict testimony by senior federal officials, who told a parliamentary committee on Thursday that the federal government had turned over all its documents to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, based at the University of Manitoba — more than four million, according to a statement given to the Star — but it has no option other than to work through a collaborative process with the churches to persuade them to share documents.
Martin Reiher, an assistant deputy minister at the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, told MPs, “In terms of legal capacity to impose sharing, we do not have that authority.”
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a law professor, former judge, member of the Muskeg Cree Nation and director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia which is trying to help communities like Kamloops retrieve valuable documents, reacted warily to the prime minister’s comments.
“I am glad the prime minister will commit to ensuring we receive all records. To be clear though, acting on this commitment will require the prime minister to use all the tools at his disposal, and to persuade the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and its various religious subgroups, such as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, that the agreements Canada made with them to permit them to withhold or ‘correct’ their records are immediately rescinded,” she said.
“The instinct to withhold the complete record has been the prevailing ethos for more than 50 years. This must end if we are to ever have truth or justice for the survivors and the ones that never made it out alive.”
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So in a week during which Trudeau promised “concrete action” in response to the horrific discovery of children’s’ remains at Kamloops, it was clear there’s been little of that to date.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett finally released $27 million to help Indigenous communities pay for archeological expertise and commemoration, two years after it was promised in the 2019 budget. She said it took that long to consult with communities and for them to provide details of what they wanted to do with the money before she could go to Treasury Board.
“In making the announcement, the minister told reporters that Indigenous peoples weren’t ready for the money to be released before this. This is quite simply untrue,” said Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, chair of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s governing circle.
“The federal government has been told time and time again that the need for action is urgent. The National Centre and Indigenous communities have been desperate to begin meaningful action in locating gravesites but have been severely underfunded,” she told MPs.
Indeed, all week long Trudeau and his ministers have insisted any efforts to uncover unmarked graves, or indeed any reconciliation effort, must be “Indigenous-led,” and that the federal government cannot swoop in or decide how research or grave searches should go.
And yet Turpel-Lafond and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation — which is the custodian of and successor to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — pleaded once again this week with Ottawa to act, saying the prime minister and the federal government have a leading role to investigate and protect potential burial sites, to set national standards to ensure grave searches protect families’ privacy, and to ensure Indigenous nations have access to all records related to missing and buried children.
Turpel-Lafond said it is a duty enshrined by the United Nations “to protect records in the face of mass human rights violations. It’s a very high duty. And so, Canada, I believe, needs to meet these standards and make sure that we protect the records, that we have a complete set, especially when it comes to understanding what has happened in Kamloops.”
Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir told a news conference Friday that the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate has yet to release any records about the Kamloops school. The Catholic order, which ran about 47 per cent of Canada’s residential schools, says it has released some records while retaining control over others, claiming privacy or historical inaccuracies.
Rev. Ken Thorson told CBC on Friday that the order committed in the past week to turning over many documents related to the Kamloops school, including daily diaries and records kept by missionary staff of “what was happening in the mission.” Those are known as codex historicus.
But it will not disclose “personnel files” of individuals who worked there, he said.
“That decision is in line of course with the privacy act of Canada,” said Thorson. “It would be our contention for the safeguarding of the integrity of the individual Oblates that we wouldn’t make those files available, but we would make any other files related to residential schools available to assist in the search for truth that’s going on to find out just what happened at the Kamloops residential school.”
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says it knows of 55 burial sites connected with former residential schools, and it is expected many more unmarked graves exist among the nearly 140 schools that were funded by Ottawa but operated by the churches from the 1880s to 1996. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of inquiry identified more than 3,200 children who died at them, and since then the centre has confirmed a total of 4,117 deaths.
Stephanie Scott, executive director of the NCTR, told MPs that while the deaths of 4,117 children in the residential schools have been confirmed, “based on the gaps in the records, we have not been able to identify the names of some of these children. The number of children believed to have gone missing is much higher.”
Record-keeping for these schools “was nowhere near today’s standards, nor were they consistent,” she said. But she was clear: “we will find more children.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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