Catholics need to ‘ask their church to do better’ in the wake of Kamloops discovery, minister says

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said today that Roman Catholics need to demand better from their church — which has so far refused to apologize for its role in the residential school system or release documents that could shed light on unmarked burial sites.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller also said it’s “shameful” that the church has so far ducked offering a clear apology to the many thousands of students who were forcibly confined at sites run by the church.

“Certainly, the Catholic friends that I speak to believe it should be done. There is a responsibility,” Miller said. “I think it is shameful that they haven’t done it, that it hasn’t been done to date.”

The renewed calls for some sign of contrition from the church come days after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said preliminary findings from a radar survey of the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School indicated as many as 215 children could be buried on the site.

The school was run by the Catholic Church for much of its nearly 100-year existence.

In its landmark 2015 report on the school system, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called on the Pope to apologize to survivors and their families for the church’s role “in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.”

The commission said Indigenous peoples should receive an apology like the one offered in 2010 to Irish survivors of clerical abuse.

The pope at the time, Benedict XVI, said he was “truly sorry” for the physical and sexual abuse inflicted by priests on some parishioners in Ireland, once one of the most staunchly Catholic countries in Europe.

“Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated,” the Pope told victims. “I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, himself a Catholic, personally asked Pope Francis to apologize to First Nations, Métis and Inuit victims of abuse during a 2018 meeting with the spiritual leader at the Vatican. The Pope’s subsequent refusal left the prime minister “disappointed,” his office said.

Bennett said the church must made amends with those who were snatched from their homes and often subjected to cruel treatment under the care of Catholic religious orders like the Oblates.

Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the TRC and a retired senator, has said as many as 6,000 children may have died at residential schools.

Poor record-keeping

On Wednesday, in an interview with CBC Radio’s The Current, Sinclair said the number is likely much higher than that but — because record-keeping by the government and the various churches that administered these sites was so poor — it is difficult to know just how many children perished.

The Catholic Church has refused to release many of its residential school documents, citing privacy laws.

“It’s up to Catholics across this country to ask their church to do better, not only in terms of releasing the records that have not been shared, but also an apology from the Pope. That is very much front and centre of unlocking the healing for these people so, so affected by the revelation,” Bennett said, citing the Kamloops discovery.

“They want to hear the Pope apologize.”

While other churches, like the Anglican and United churches, have apologized for their roles in this system, Catholic leaders have so far only issued expressions of “sorrow.”

The Catholic Church operated roughly 70 per cent of Canada’s residential schools, which were first established in the 19th century. The last one closed in 1996.

In a statement, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) called the Kamloops discovery a “shocking” event that “rekindles trauma in numerous communities across this land.”

Peters sits on the lawn at the former school, in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

“As we see ever more clearly the pain and suffering of the past, the Bishops of Canada pledge to continue walking side by side with Indigenous peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future,” said Richard Gagnon, archbishop of Winnipeg and the president of the CCCB.

J. Michael Miller, Vancouver’s archbishop, said in a statement he was “filled with deep sadness” after learning some 200 children may have been buried at the former school site.

“The pain that such news causes reminds us of our ongoing need to bring light to every tragic situation that occurred in residential schools run by the church,” Miller said.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) has issued a statement saying the Pope himself, as the head of the worldwide Catholic Church, needs to take responsibility for some of the atrocities carried out by church functionaries.

“My creator is asking their god why their disciples would do this to us. The Pope must answer this question. There is no more denying it, now there is physical evidence from these unmarked graves,” Rick Alex of Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation and co-chair of IRSSS said in a statement.

The United Nations Human Rights Office urged Canada on Wednesday to do all it can to find the Indigenous children that died at residential schools. It called for an “exhaustive investigation” to uncover the remains of former students that may have been left in unmarked graves.

Marta Hurtado, a spokesperson for the UN body, said the federal government must “redouble its efforts to find the whereabouts of missing children” in the wake of a preliminary investigation at the former Kamloops school.

“Remains should be identified and forensic studies carried out to ensure proper identification of remains. Without this, healing is not possible,” Hurtado said in a statement.

The UN said the “shocking” and “painful” Kamloops discovery should inspire Canada to implement the TRC’s calls to action, which included a section on missing children and burial information.

The TRC called for the establishment of a student death registry and an online registry of residential school cemeteries, among other recommendations meant to help communities document lost loved ones.

Hurtado said Canada must improve its residential school-related record-keeping to give families and Indigenous communities better access to documents relating to missing and deceased family members.

After an exhaustive, six-year probe, the TRC found most of the children who died at residential schools perished of malnourishment or disease. Some children who attended the schools in the 1940s and 1950s were also subjected to science experiments in which they were deprived of essential nutrients and dental care.

Money to be distributed on ‘urgent basis’

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Bennett said the government already earmarked some $33 million in its 2019 budget to implement the TRC’s burial-related recommendations.

Little of that money has been spent so far; $27 million of that funding is still available to help Indigenous communities find and commemorate lost children.

Bennett said the money “will be distributed on an urgent basis” in partnership with the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and Indigenous communities that are interested in finding lost children.

During a debate on the Kamloops discovery in the House of Commons last night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged the support of the federal government to help in preserving grave sites and possibly uncovering more unmarked burial grounds at other former residential schools.

But he stressed the need for Indigenous communities to decide for themselves how they want to proceed. Miller echoed that sentiment Wednesday, saying Ottawa is “walking at the pace of communities.”

“I know people are eager to get answers about what we will do nationally. The reality is this is something that will be dictated to us by the communities that are affected,” he said.

Miller said the government is intent on developing culturally appropriate protocols to honour the lost children.

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