Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver today.
For 79 years, between 1890 and 1969, the Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate ran the Kamloops Indian Residential School and built a record. The students who attended the schools, the things they did while there, the teachers who taught them and the administrators who oversaw the school would have been noted, along with much more.
Within those records could be the answers to pressing questions about the devastating consequences of tuberculosis, influenza, neglect, malnourishment, fire, accidents and escapes among the school population. There could also be clues as to what happened to students who simply vanished.
But many of those documents have never been made public, at least not in an accessible way. This week, Indigenous Canadian leaders called on the Catholic Church once again to apologize for the church’s part in operating residential schools and to atone, in part, by disclosing all the documents available pertaining to their operation. The call was renewed Friday by the chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, in Kamloops.
“We do want an apology – a public apology – not just for us, but for the world,” Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir told a group of reporters from across the globe. “[We are] holding the Catholic Church to account – there has never been an apology from the Roman Catholics.”
Her comments come a week after the disclosure by the band that the remains of 215 children had been found on the grounds of the old school. They were bolstered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said Friday that as a Catholic, he is disappointed by the position taken by the church on residential schools.
Noting that there is still resistance on the part of the Catholic Church to accept its role in the residential schools legacy, Mr. Trudeau said the government is hopeful the church will change its position but acknowledged that Ottawa “has tools” that it can use, without providing specifics.
“Truth is at the heart of understanding our past and preventing further damage in the future,” he said. “We need to have truth before we can talk about justice, healing and reconciliation.”
Raymond Frogner, head of archives for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said the Catholic entities that ran the majority of these schools in the country have still not shared historic records, estimated to be in the thousands, despite years of efforts to obtain them . These include school narratives, codex historicus, or records of daily life, chronicles, correspondences, and photographic materials.
Across Canada, the national centre has counted 4,117 children’s deaths at the schools and estimates there are thousands more.
In an interview, Ken Thorson, leader of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order that ran about 43 of the schools including the one at Kamloops, acknowledged that, regarding the codex historicus, “we have not hidden them – but they have not been as available as they could be.” He pledged to make them available to the NCTR, and pay for the cost of digitalizing them.
Ry Moran, who spent years gathering millions of documents for the TRC, said there were “significant challenges encountered over accessing these records,” from Catholic entities, such as chronicles, kept by nuns.
The commission sought to collect all records related to residential schools. After some initial wrangling, some entities were very forthcoming, he said – the Anglican and United churches, and some Catholic orders, such as the Jesuits. Other Catholic entities, however, were unco-operative.
In his years of work, from Catholic entities he encountered obfuscation, debates over semantics, unwillingness to help in the digitalization process, hesitancy, and sometimes outright resistance to share. “Catholic entities were one of the few that routinely appeared with their legal counsel” to meetings, he said.
Mr. Trudeau noted once again on Friday that the Catholic Church has yet to apologize for its role in running the schools. Other religious entities that operated schools have apologized for the harm, but the pope never has.
Earlier in the week, the Archbishop of Vancouver apologized and pledged new resources to help make amends for the devastation wrought by the Indian residential schools,
Former TRC chair Murray Sinclair told a House of Commons committee on Thursday that an independent study is needed on where the burial sites are and “what the numbers are going to tell us.” He said a parliamentary committee should oversee the investigation to ensure it is done properly.
News of the Kamloops discovery has further inflamed debate about what to do about the memorials to key historical Canadian figures, most notably Sir John A. Macdonald, who was the architect of the residential school system. Globe columnist Andrew Coyne takes note of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s disdain for efforts at “cancelling” Mr. Macdonald and others. But Andrew concludes Mr. Kenney is wrong.
“The country’s honour is at stake. Although much has been done to make amends for the residential schools – and, more broadly, for the history of injustices to Indigenous Canadians – much more remains to be done. Of course, merely knocking down a few statues will do nothing, on its own, to make the lives of ordinary Indigenous people better. But it may be taken as a sign of how seriously we take the task.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.