The Catholic religious order that operated residential schools in Saskatchewan and British Columbia where hundreds of unmarked graves have been found says it will disclose all historical documents in its possession.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate operated 48 schools in Canada, including the Marieval Indian Residential School at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
“We remain deeply sorry for our involvement in residential schools and the harms they brought to Indigenous peoples and communities,” said a statement.
Indigenous leaders and others have been calling for the release of all documents related to residential schools.
Cowessess First Nation announced Thursday that ground-penetrating radar indicated 751 unmarked graves at its school site. Last month, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said the same technology had detected what are believed to be the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops school.
In the statement, the Oblates said they have worked to make historical documents available through universities, archives and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
They said the work is not complete because of complications with provincial and national privacy laws. They asked for guidance from organizations familiar with those laws.
Rev. Ken Thorson, provincial leader for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) Lacombe Canada, said they will have a meeting next week at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, where they will discuss the issue further.
“We operated 48 schools over many years, so the documents would be well into the tens of thousands,” Thorson said in an interview Friday.
“What percentage of the documents were handed over, I couldn’t say at this point ... but we are hoping to have a better sense of that in the coming weeks.”
He said the Oblates want to balance the needs of Indigenous communities and the rights to personal privacy.
“[Indigenous communities] have a need and a right to their history, and part of their history at least is contained in our records,” Thorson said. “We want to make sure that they have as much access as we can possibly give.”
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations also alleged that Catholic Church representatives removed headstones and other grave markers at the school site in the 1960s.
Delorme added in Thursday’s announcement that removing a headstone without permission is a crime in Canada.
Thorson said he did not know gravestones were removed, and if the church had ordered it, “it would be inexcusable.”
He said he has asked their archivist to look for any information about those allegations.
Delorme did not say whether the RCMP has been contacted to investigate any historical crimes at the school.
Saskatchewan RCMP said it is working with Cowessess First Nation leadership to “determine if or how they wish the RCMP to be involved.”
“Our actions must be respectful of the immense grief the people of Cowessess First Nation continue to suffer,” the RCMP said in a statement Friday.
“We know we have enforced racist and discriminatory legislation and policies.”
Editor’s note: A previous version referred to the religious order as The Missionary of Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The proper name is, in fact, The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
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