Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has encouraged the Catholic Church to “take responsibility” for its part in the torture of Indigenous children in residential schools.
But, so far, Trudeau has refrained from ordering the church to reveal information relating to the deaths of children in schools.
A week after the remains of 215 children were found buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in unmarked graves, Trudeau said he is personally disappointed “as a Catholic” that Pope Francis and other leaders have failed to apologize or hand over documents on the children’s deaths or burials.
He also said he has unspecified “tools” and “processes” by which he can compel the church to release more records on burials at the school, which it ran — but is not inclined to force the church to release those records just yet.
“I think if it is necessary, we will take stronger measures,” Trudeau said at a Friday news conference.
Instead, he is urging Catholics in Canada to put pressure on clergy to do the right thing.
“Before we have to start taking the Catholic Church to court, I am very hopeful that religious leaders will understand that this is something they need to participate in,” Trudeau said.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was operated by the Catholic Church between 1890 and 1969, was at one time 130 schools in Canada’s Indian Affairs residential school system.
The federal government took over operation of the school in 1969 and ran it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
More than 150,000 children were placed in residential schools in Canada between the 1870s and 1996 as part of a program to force Indigenous children to assimilate.
Other churches that ran residential schools for the federal government have complied with requests for more information.
In 2017 Trudeau said he directly asked the pope “to move forward on apologizing, on asking for forgiveness on restitution, on making these records available.”
The pope declined to apologize.
However, according to some scholars, the federal government of Canada previously got copies of numerous church-generated records when Ottawa negotiated the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and took culpability and the expense of paying victims.
Senior federal officials also told a parliamentary committee on Thursday that the federal government has turned over more than four million documents on residential schools to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Centre, but that churches must cooperate in order to share documents.
“I am glad the prime minister will commit to ensuring we receive all records,” said 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.
“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,” Turpel-Lafond added. “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.”
Earlier this week Trudeau said the government is considering providing additional support to the survivors of the children who died.