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Politics Truth and Reconciliation chair calls on Trudeau to ask for apology from Pope

Justice Murray Sinclair speaks at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada event in Ottawa on June 2. Sinclair said Justin Trudeau and his government could demonstrate leadership by fully implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

The head of the commission established to learn the truth about the abuse of children at Canada's Indian residential schools is calling upon Justin Trudeau to ask Pope Francis to apologize for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the atrocities.

Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), says he was pleased to hear the Liberals promise, during the recent election campaign, to enact the many recommendations contained in the commission's report of last spring.

The 94 "calls to action" are wide-ranging, touching upon almost every aspect of the relationship between indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada, from health to justice to commemoration, and many other points in between.

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While many of the recommendations are aimed at Ottawa, there are a number that would have to be implemented by the provinces and territories, the municipalities, private businesses and the churches that ran the schools, Justice Sinclair told The Globe and Mail in a telephone interview. They include a call for the Pope to apologize for the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children at Catholic-run schools.

Mr. Trudeau, who will be sworn in as Canada's 23rd Prime Minister on Wednesday, has a role to play in securing that apology, Justice Sinclair said. "That is a request that, we think, has got to come from the highest official in the country because it is almost a nation-to-nation request. So I would hope that that request would be communicated at that level," he said.

Outgoing Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with Pope Francis at the Vatican just nine days after the TRC made public its interim report but the matter of the apology was not raised directly during their private discussion. That meeting, coincidentally, took place on June 11, the seventh anniversary of Mr. Harper's own apology for the federal government's role in creating the residential school system.

Some of the recommendations of the TRC will be easier to fulfill than others. But Justice Sinclair said there are none that should take priority.

"It was intended by us, when we put together all of these calls, that this would be a comprehensive approach," he said. "To leave some part of it behind means that we just have to go back and address it at a later point."

Justice Sinclair said Mr. Trudeau and his government could demonstrate leadership by fully implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which, among other things, promotes the full participation of indigenous peoples in matters that concern them. The Conservative government was a signatory to the declaration but always regarded it as an aspirational document.

If the federal government adopts the declaration in full, then provinces, municipalities, private industry and churches would also have to look at it more closely, Justice Sinclair said.

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Likewise, he said, a new Royal Proclamation issued by the Crown to build on the proclamation of 1763 and the 1764 Treaty of Niagara would set a new tone in the relationship, he said. And the call for the establishment of a national council for reconciliation would create a process by which people can be held to account for their actions.

"So those are important," Justice Sinclair said, "but they are not any more important than our call for schools to change their curriculum so that children learn to talk to and about each other in a better way in the future."

Justice Sinclair is taking part this week in a two-day celebration in Winnipeg to mark the opening of the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which houses millions of documents about the residential schools – tens of thousands of which will be released publicly on Wednesday.

"Future generations are not going to have the opportunity to hear the survivors. They're not going to have the opportunity to see them speak. So, we knew that collecting the documents that supported the stories and collecting the statements and the physical evidence to show, in fact, that this had occurred, was very important for Canada's national memory," Justice Sinclair said.

"In 50 or 100 years from now, there's going to be a totally different country," he said, "a country filled with people who have no direct connection to this history. So we wanted to ensure that people in the future who didn't believe or who refused to believe or who denied this history couldn't get away with it."

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