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Indigenous groups push Catholic Church to release residential school records

BY Ben Powless Jan 15, 2022

Indigenous groups are calling for the federal government, churches and even the Vatican to turn over all remaining records related to residential schools, even after Ottawa has said it has handed over all its records.

In October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada had turned over all residential school records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), which the centre says is “not accurate.” 

The NCTR say the government has yet to hand over various records from Library and Archives Canada, records from provincial governments, including death certificates and coroner reports, as well as school narratives and supporting documents.

The NCTR has a registry of 4,127 children who did not return from residential schools but said there are potentially thousands more that it cannot confirm because records have not been handed over. On December 6, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller committed to turning over thousands of previously undisclosed records.

Miller said that previous record disclosures had fulfilled the government’s legal obligations but not its moral obligations, although the documents include around 12,000 pages of the same information that Catholic groups still refuse to release. 

Indigenous leaders are pushing for the Vatican to release any records in its vast archives that are related to residential schools, the majority of which were run by the Catholic Church.

Indigenous leaders, including Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty, were supposed to attend a gathering at the Vatican this month, but that visit was postponed due to concerns over the omicron variant. 

Gull-Masty said that her understanding is that records may exist on a case-by-case basis. “Some schools had a lot of information, some schools didn’t. Some places, we’re talking about archiving that goes back years, decades,” she said. “In asking for information, we have to ask the Catholic Church if they’re privy to how this information would be and how to access it.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) told the Globe and Mail that they were not aware of any residential school records at the Vatican. However, Gull-Masty said the CCCB wouldn’t necessarily know if those records existed.

“They have to do their own research,” she said. “They should at least seek an explanation of what happened to those records. If they’re unavailable or were shredded, they should be up front with that and explain that.”

The Catholic Church in Canada has been repeatedly criticized for failing to turn over records or comply with financial obligations from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The church claims it was unable to raise the funds agreed to in the agreement.

Other churches are more open to working with Indigenous groups. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate committed this month to granting the NCTR access to all residential school records at their archive in Rome.

The Oblates operated 48 residential schools across Canada, including those in Cowessess First Nation and in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation – where mass graves were uncovered. Documents at the archives may include letters written by Oblate missionaries to their leaders in France or Italy.

“This offer from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to provide copies of records to the NCTR in order to make them available to all Survivors, their families, and all Canadians, is a representation of true reconciliation,” NCTR Executive Director Stephanie Scott said in a statement.

“The sharing of information is key,” Scott added. “We currently hold almost 7,000 survivor statements and over five million records and are committed to finding all residential school records no matter where they are located or how long it takes.”

by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.