United Nations rights experts have called on Canada and the Catholic Church to carry out thorough investigations after the remains of Indigenous children were found at a former residential school, as the Canadian prime minister blasted the church for ignoring its past crimes.
A mass grave of 215 Indigenous children was discovered last month at Kamloops residential school in British Columbia, which operated between 1890 and 1978 under the auspices of the Catholic Church and later the Canadian government.
“We urge the authorities to conduct full-fledged investigations into the circumstances and responsibilities surrounding these deaths, including forensic examinations of the remains found, and to proceed to the identification and registration of the missing children,” nine UN human rights experts said in a statement on Friday.
They called on the Canadian government to conduct similar investigations into all of the country’s former residential schools, which were set up to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children.
According to the statement, criminal investigations should also be launched into all allegations of suspicious deaths, and claims of torture and sexual violence against children at the schools, they said.
Perpetrators and concealers who may still be alive should be prosecuted and sanctioned, the UN experts said, adding that it was “inconceivable” that Canada and the Vatican would leave such “heinous crimes” unaccounted for and without redress.
Trudeau blasts church
On Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged the Catholic Church to “take responsibility” and release records on Indigenous residential schools under its direction.
He warned that his government was prepared to take “stronger measures,” possibly including legal action, to obtain the documents demanded by victims’ families if the church failed to comply.
“As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed by the position that the Catholic Church has taken now and over the past many years,” Trudeau told a news conference.
He recalled a May 2017 trip to the Vatican, during which he sought a formal apology from Pope Francis for abuses of students, as well as access to church records to help account for more than 4,100 students believed to have died from disease or malnutrition.
“We’re still seeing resistance from the church,” Trudeau said.
When asked if the government might compel disclosure, the prime minister responded: “I think, if it is necessary, we will take stronger measures.”
But he added: “Before we have to start taking the Catholic Church to court, I am very hopeful that religious leaders will understand that this is something they need to participate in.”
Danielle Morrison, a lawyer and member of the Anishinaabe Nation, told Al Jazeera that the Canadian government was expected to take action against the church at this point.
She said that there had been calls for decades to compel the Roman Catholic Church to release its archives, and identify and convict any living suspects who had committed crimes against Indigenous people.
“At this point, given the fact that the world is watching, they [the government] really don’t have a choice but to either take legal action or denounce the Catholic Church,” she added.
Canada has been convulsed by the discovery of the remains at the school, especially as there were only 50 deaths officially on record there.
The school was one of many boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate the country’s Indigenous peoples.
Church should ‘step up’
Trudeau urged Canadian Catholics to “reach out (to their) local parishes, to bishops and cardinals, and make it clear that we expect the church to step up and take responsibility for its role in this and be there to help in the grieving and the healing, including with records.”
“It’s something a number of other churches … have done. It’s something we are all still waiting for the Catholic Church to do,” he said.
“We need to have truth before we can talk about justice, healing and reconciliation.”
Some 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children in total were enrolled in 139 of these residential schools across Canada, where students were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.
Those experiences are blamed now for a high incidence of poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, as well as high suicide rates, in Indigenous communities.
In Kamloops, Tk’emlups te Secwepemc chief Rosanne Casimir, who has enlisted the help of the British Columbia coroner to help identify students’ remains and causes of deaths, told reporters the community had never received any records from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who ran the school.
“We do want an apology” from the church, she said, “a public apology, not just for us, but for the world … holding the church to account.”