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It is not known how many documents relating to the Canadian residential school system are still missing, nor what records, if any, might be at the Vatican Apostolic Secret Archive.ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

The Vatican archives are vast, containing 85 kilometres of shelves, an underground vault and millions of pages of documents spanning 12 centuries. Canadian residential school researchers say there is a high likelihood they contain records and references to the federally funded, church-run system that ripped Indigenous children from their families – and they want those records released.

It’s also one of the key messages that some Indigenous delegates want to deliver when they meet with Pope Francis, a visit now postponed until next year out of concerns about the Omicron variant. Some say they want to see further action from the Catholic Church, beyond apologies.

Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron, who is one of the delegates going to Rome, said she hopes the church will release all records “in its possession with respect to Canada’s residential and day school system, so that we can begin to repair and renew our relationship and forge a new future for ourselves grounded in truth, transparency and understanding.”

Delegation postpones visit to Vatican due to concerns over Omicron variant

Federal government to turn over thousands of residential school files

Last week, the federal government said it will turn over thousands of documents – a mix of government and church records – to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) in the coming weeks.

The NCTR’s student register lists 4,127 children who never returned home from residential schools. It says there are potentially thousands more, but it can’t confirm and honour the missing children because many records have not been handed over.

Examples of church documents the NCTR told The Globe and Mail it still hopes to receive include student records, student and staff identification forms, staff lists and journals, school plans, vendor lists, maps, invoices and ledgers.

It is not known how many documents are still missing, nor what records, if any, were sent to the Vatican. The Globe sent a list of questions to the Holy See press office on Dec. 2, asking what the Vatican holds related to residential schools and whether it would share any relevant records, but received no reply.

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University of Victoria librarian and archivist Ry Moran says 'it is absolutely reasonable to assume that there are documents that will provide further evidence on the intentions and effectively the global strategy of colonization.'Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Ry Moran, an associate librarian for reconciliation at the University of Victoria and the founding director of the NCTR, said there is a “very, very high likelihood” that the Vatican has records, “because the residential schools were not an aberration. They were not a mistake. These were carefully considered and intentional efforts to either Christianize or to missionize to Indigenous peoples, or in the context of the Canadian state, to gain control over Indigenous lands. So it is absolutely reasonable to assume that there are documents that will provide further evidence on the intentions and effectively the global strategy of colonization.”

In the early days, as Catholic entities were being established throughout the country, communication with Rome was likely “frequent and ongoing,” said Mr. Moran, who is Métis.

On Vatican-held records, “I don’t think they have been comprehensively reviewed in any way, shape or form for evidence of residential school misdeeds or knowledge of who, what, when.”

The NCTR, which is not part of the Indigenous delegation heading to Rome next year, said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe that it does not have first-hand knowledge about any records being held in the Vatican. If it does hold records, “we want them returned to Canada,” the centre said.

Stephanie Scott, the NCTR’s executive director, said her message to the Vatican is that “reconciliation starts with recognizing the past. If the church wishes to forge a path together toward reconciliation, the path must start with an apology and continued co-operation to expedite residential school records to the NCTR.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said it has committed publicly, and in conversation with Indigenous leaders, “to providing relevant documentation or records that will assist in the memorialization of those buried in unmarked graves, in a manner that respects the confidentiality of residential school survivors and their families,” adding that this work is “ongoing.” The CCCB said it is not aware of any residential school records at the Vatican archives, which is open to some qualified scholars and clergymen.

The Catholic Church, which ran about 60 per cent of residential schools in Canada, has been criticized for failing to turn over all records to the NCTR and its predecessor, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Some entities – such as the Jesuits – were forthcoming, and others – such as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a religious order that ran 48 residential schools – have recently pledged to make records more accessible, after announcements this year of hundreds of unmarked graves found near residential school sites.

Ken Thorson, an Oblate leader in Canada, said they have found no record of residential school files being sent to the Vatican. Still, he added in an e-mail, it wouldn’t be unusual that some historical documents, such as letters written by early Oblate missionaries to their leaders in Rome, could be housed at the Oblate’s General House Archive in Rome. Oblate leaders in Canada “are working with the Oblate administration in Rome to find an appropriate third-party process to clarify if any such documentation resides there and the information it might contain.” If there are documents, he said, they would be willing to share them.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, is certain the Vatican has scores of documents on residential schools, as the church’s own canon law dictated that detailed records such as daily accounts, deaths, finances and staffing be kept with duplicates or original copies sent back to Rome.

She said the Pope could issue a directive calling for Catholic entities and the Vatican to share all residential school records. In Canada, she said, the federal government should enact legislation forcing entities to share crucial historical records. Canada needs “to have a mandatory Indigenous archive requiring deposit and maintenance of a system to ensure records are complete and accessible, particularly pertaining to residential schools. The 72 [Catholic] entities should be ordered to produce those records because they’re necessary and in the public interest to get to the bottom of the missing children, unmarked graves and related matters.”

Norman Yakeleya, Dene politician and Yellowknife-based residential school survivor, said he wants to see meaningful action. “We want a commitment that they will work with the Indigenous peoples on the archival records, the historical documentation, and share records that may be in Canada or may be in the Vatican,” he said. “We are seeking the truth.”

As delegates on a mission of truth and reconciliation prepare to meet the pontiff on Dec. 17, the Vatican Museums opened part of their collection of Indigenous artifacts from Canada to The Globe including a rare, antique Inuvialuit kayak made of sealskin. It is believed to be one of only six of these kayaks in existence. The museum is looking to pinpoint where exactly the kayak came from and connect with Inuit community members and experts to help restore it.

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