Please note: This story contains reference to people who have died.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for accountability from the Catholic Church days after the bodies of 215 First Nations children were found in a mass grave at the former site of Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Calling on the institution to “step up”, the Prime Minister shared his disappointment in the lack of responsibility the Church has taken for their role in the forced removal and institutionalisation of First Nation children between 1890 and the late 1970s.
It is estimated that the Catholic Church managed 60 per cent of the residential schools in Canada.
In an address on June 4, Mr Trudeau said in 2017 he had personally asked the Pope for the Catholic Church to apologise for their part in the Government-sponsored, church-run residential schools.
“We’re still seeing resistance from the church … Possibly from the church in Canada,” said Mr Trudeau.
On May 28, the bodies of 215 First Nations children were found by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The mass grave was found using a “ground-penetrating radar”, confirming long-held beliefs of local First Nations peoples regarding the realities of the residential school.
Kamloops Indian Residential School, which opened in 1816, was operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Two days after the grave was discovered, Father Ken Thorson, the provincial superior of the Oblates issues a statement.
“I wish to express my heartfelt sadness and sincere regret for the deep pain and distress the discovery of the remains of children buried on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School brings to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, and other affected Indigenous communities, especially family members of the deceased,” he said.
Father Thorson said the “heart-breaking discovery” asked them to continue to confront the legacies of the residential school system.
“Through our own ongoing reflection, and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we are growing into a deepening awareness of the damage caused to Indigenous peoples, the enduring harm caused by colonisation and the part our religious order played in it through the residential school system,” he said.
“This growing awareness leads us to an increased desire to listen deeply and learn from Indigenous communities where Oblates continue to live and minister.
“The Oblates remain committed to humbly participating in ongoing efforts towards Reconciliation and healing for our role in this painful part of our shared history.”
It’s alleged the institution has refused to release records which would support families and communities in identifying the remains.
Mr Trudeau indicated the Canadian Government has the potential to demand residential school records from the institution, however, it would mean legal action.
The Prime Minister reinforced his hope the institution would invest in Reconciliation.
“Forgiveness and redemption is a path we all are told we should be walking on through our faith,” he said.
“I am confident that the Catholic Church is hearing these calls, very clearly, and is understanding the kind of dismay and grief that many Canadians are feeling right now and seeing the continued lack of action.”
Whilst the Catholic Church as an institution has not issued a formal apology, individual bishops have come forward, including President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Richard Gagnon and Nova Scotia Archbishop Brian Dunn.
“Acknowledging and bringing to light this dark chapter of our Catholic and Canadian history is difficult but necessary in order to be able to do and be better,” Archbishop Dunn said in a statement.
“I continue to be committed to all who have been mistreated and hurt by the residential school experience, in which church members participated knowingly or unknowingly.”
Three years ago, New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus brought a motion before Parliament calling for a formal apology form the Catholic Church which required the surrendering of all documents and records relating to residential schools.
He also urged for survivors to be compensated.
“It’s been three years and we’re still waiting,” Mr Angus said.
Mr Trudeau has encouraged Canadian Catholics to reach out to their church leaders and urge them to “help in the grieving and the healing, including with records that are necessary”.
By Rachael Knowles