The path to accountability for Canada’s residential school graves

Canada and Catholic Church have done little to atone for forced-assimilation institutions, say experts who demand concrete action.

Children's shoes, toys, sweets, tobacco and flowers are left on a memorial at Portage La Prairie Indian Residential School, which closed in 1975, in the Canadian province of Manitoba on June 8 [Shannon VanRaes/Reuters]

Warning: The story below contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

Canada – Niigaanwewidam Sinclair says the recent discoveries of mass graves of Indigenous children have vindicated what his community has long known.

“Every Indigenous community has stories of lost children, so none of this is surprising,” Sinclair, associate professor at the University of Manitoba, told Al Jazeera. “The only surprising element really is that Canadians are so surprised.”

At least three First Nations in Canada recently uncovered hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of former “residential schools” – government-founded, assimilation institutions that were run by various churches for more than 100 years.

From the late 1800s until 1996, Canada forcibly removed 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and forced them to attend the institutions. They were made to cut their long hair, forbidden from speaking their languages, and many were physically and sexually abused. Thousands are believed to have died.

For decades, survivors have known of their deaths, but now with more access to technology, the graves are being examined. As First Nations publicise the exact numbers of lost children, a wave of grief has crashed through Indigenous communities.

The findings have also fuelled calls for accountability from Ottawa and the churches that ran day-to-day operations at the institutions – notably the Roman Catholic Church, which was in charge of most of them.

But Indigenous leaders say neither the federal government nor the Catholic Church have done enough to address continuing harms caused by the institutions – nor have they acted to implement a long list of recommendations put out by a federal commission of inquiry in 2015. That commission concluded Canada had committed “cultural genocide” through the residential schools system.

“They don’t have a plan, they don’t have the means or the political will to deliver on the small amount of initiatives that they’ve committed to, and if anything, they’ve disappointed widely on the commitments they make. Their words don’t match their actions,” said Sinclair, referring to the Canadian government.

Calls to Action

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was envisioned as a way to document the stories of residential school survivors and bring them justice, but years after the TRC issued its calls to action, Canada and the Catholic Church have only implemented eight of 94 recommendations, a December 2020 report by the First-Nation-led research centre, the Yellowhead Institute, found.

However, as graves of Indigenous children were counted over the last month, Canada has made progress on four more, said Eva Jewell, associate fellow at the Yellowhead Institute, who co-authored the report, although she cautioned that it is not clear if those four have been fully implemented yet.

“Canada can summon the political will when there’s heat on them,” she told Al Jazeera.

“There’s a lot of pressure on Canada to act and to do something, and suddenly there’s been a renewed interest in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. They’ve been neglected for so long, and suddenly here was this finding, and Canadians were rushing to figure out, ‘well, I thought we were doing something.'”

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada told Al Jazeera in an email this month that the country’s 2019 budget provided $28m ($33.8m Canadian) over three years to support the recommendations on deaths at the schools specifically. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers have reiterated that they remain committed to supporting First Nation communities in their efforts.

But Indigenous advocates say too little has been done, and Jewell said the existing dynamic puts pressure on Indigenous people to take action when a tragedy makes headlines.

“There was no time to mourn, there was no time to sit with the grief, it was just an immediate spring to action and seize the moment, and try to harness the attention and the political will to push through the things that really matter, and that will really affect change in our community,” she said. “I would like to see more sustained commitment and action, and I hope Canadians will commit to that.”

Church responsibility

The TRC’s calls to action include an apology from Pope Francis for the role the Catholic Church played in the residential schools system, and aid from the federal government to help uncover unmarked graves and identify remains.

But the pope has not apologised, expressing “pain” this month after 215 Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School in the western province of British Columbia. Weeks later, some 715 Indigenous people’s remains were discovered at Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Both institutions were run by the Catholic Church, furthering calls for the church to hand over all of its records.

“The Church needs to accept full responsibility, release all its Indian Residential School records, and trade in shallow placatory remarks for meaningful apologies through action,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said in a statement.

People from Mosakahiken Cree Nation hug in front of a makeshift memorial at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School [Cole Burston/AFP]

Donald Bolen, the Archbishop of Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, said the archdiocese has limited residential school records. But he said death records from 1885 to 1952 were handed over to Cowessess First Nation, which discovered the unmarked graves at Marieval. The archdiocese also has some correspondence outlining when many priests began working at residential schools in that area, Bolen told Al Jazeera.

“Within the limits of privacy laws, we’re sharing what we have and we’ll assist Indigenous communities with communications with religious communities who might have more information,” he said, adding that the archdiocese also provided $70,000 in 2019 to help the First Nation in its search for the unmarked graves.

Meanwhile, two religious communities of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate – which operated both the Marieval and Kamloops institutions – said on June 24 that they would “disclose all historical documents maintained by us and in our possession, in accordance with all legislation, about our involvement”.

Bolen would not comment directly when asked why Pope Francis has not yet apologised. He said an Indigenous delegation would travel to Rome before the end of the year to meet with the pope. “The pope will have a chance to hear from them directly and then to engage,” Bolen said. “That process is really vital.”

Independent investigation

Meanwhile, the residential school discoveries have garnered international condemnation, including from a panel of United Nations experts who on June 4 called for “full-fledged investigations” of the grave site at Kamloops.

Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the TRC, also recently told The Globe and Mail newspaper that any investigation “should not be left in the hands of the government or the churches and must instead be created in consultation with Indigenous people”.

Trudeau was asked during a news conference on June 25 how far his government would be willing to go to get accountability, including whether police or international experts should investigate. “I think the first thing we need to do is be there for the communities and what they want, and what they need, and what answers they need to get,” he responded.

“Every step of the way, my pledge to all Canadians is that we will put Indigenous peoples and their wishes – for their loved ones, for their communities – at the very core of whatever next steps we take.”

Melanie Klinkner, associate professor at Bournemouth University and expert on mass graves, said two elements stand out in the residential schools discoveries: the circumstances of the children’s deaths and the potential unlawfulness in how their bodies were disposed of.

She said states have a duty to conduct “a full and effective investigation” when suspicious deaths are reported. “The investigation needs to be independent, it needs to be impartial, it needs to be done in such a way that there’s confidence in the findings. It also means that they must be capable of resulting in accountability processes,” Klinkner told Al Jazeera.

Klinkner added that other forms of justice also are at play in Canada, including the identification, return and reburial of the Indigenous children’s remains in a culturally sensitive manner, potential historical commemorations at the sites, and support for residential school survivors. “The onus is on the government to uphold the rule of law,” she said, “which is why I think an investigation has to happen.”

Sinclair at the University of Manitoba said for Canada to properly atone for its genocide, it must return the land to Indigenous people, recognise treaty rights, and adopt a long-term plan to implement the TRC calls to action, as well as the recommendations in a report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“Now is the time to create a country different than that which we have inherited,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera