Catholic Church Calls Justin Trudeau ‘Uninformed’ Amid Demands It Release Residential School Records

All because the prime minister asked the Church to release residential school records—something the Church says it's done, but others say it hasn't.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Pope Francis
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally asked Pope Francis to apologize to residential schools survivors in 2017, but the request was denied. Now, those calls are being reiterated. Photos via getty

A Canadian Catholic archbishop has called Justin Trudeau “unhelpful” and “uninformed” after the prime minister urged the Church to turn over all documents related to residential schools.

“As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed by the decision that the Catholic Church has taken now and over the past many years,” Trudeau said Friday, before urging Canadians to apply pressure on their church leaders to release documents that could help identify undocumented children who died while forced to attend residential school.

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Last month, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc confirmed it found the remains of 215 undocumented children, including some as young as 3, buried under a former Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. 

Residential schools were used by the Canadian government to forcibly assimilate an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. Sweeping abuses were common and thousands died while attending residential schools. Others disappeared after running away. The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. More than half were run by the Catholic Church.

“We do want a public apology from the Church…There has never been an apology from the Roman Catholics,” Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir told reporters on Friday.

The Catholic Church has never formally apologized for its role in residential schools. Over the weekend, Pope Francis finally broke his silence and called the news “shocking” and “sad”—but did not apologize.

Many believe the pope’s comments don’t go far enough, especially since he refused to acknowledge the abuses committed by the Church sooner. The pope’s latest comments come more than five years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its findings and issued 94 calls to action, which hold several institutions to account for their roles in colonialism. In 2017, Trudeau personally asked the pope to issue an apology, but the request was denied. 

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“May the political and religious authorities of Canada continue to collaborate with determination to shed light on that sad story and humbly commit themselves to a path of reconciliation and healing,” Pope Francis said. 

The Archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins, went on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday and responded to criticisms of the Church’s inaction. “I don't know whether seeking always some big, dramatic thing is really the way forward. I think step by step is better,” Collins said. 

Collins said that regional Catholic leadership and those who ran the schools have expressed their apologies “direct and absolutely.” Last week, Vancouver Catholic Archdiocese apologized for its  “unquestionably wrong” role in implementing colonial policies at residential schools. 

But Barton responded to Collins, saying, “There is a difference between a local diocese making an apology...and the head of the Catholic Church.”

Collins also told Barton the Church has made residential school records available, and criticized Trudeau for applying pressure on religious leaders to release them. “Those are extremely unhelpful remarks by Mr. Trudeau—and uniformed,” Collins said. 

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“As far as I know, the records of the Catholic Church have been made available. If there is any Catholic group that has not made their records available, they should. Obviously, they should,” Collins said. 

But Indigenous leaders are yet to see many records. Casimir said that the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which ran nearly half of Canada's residential schools, hasn’t released any records yet, despite pleas to do so. 

“To date they have not released any records,” Casimir said. 

Father Ken Thorson of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate told CBC News he has committed to handing over the congregation's records, but names of former residential school staff won’t be listed.

Even though Trudeau is applying pressure on Catholics to release records, the federal government has also come under fire in the past for failing to release its own. In 2017, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that residential school records can be destroyed. At the time, the Supreme Court said it’s up to residential school survivors to decide whether their testimonies can be made public. 

Some other records in Canada’s possession can’t be released without permission from the Catholic Church. "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,” Trudeau said.

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The news out of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc has amplified calls for Canada and the Church to hold themselves accountable. There are growing demands to criminally investigate both organizations, including at the International Criminal Court level, where a group of Canadian lawyers is hoping Canada and the Catholic Church will be tried for crimes against humanity. Indigenous communities are also calling on the Church to formally apologize and release all residential school records. Calls to implement the TRC’s 94 calls to action, of which only eight have been put in place, are also being reiterated—five calls specifically pertain to unmarked burial sites at residential schools. 

Local efforts to reject colonialism have also gathered steam, with civilians and authorities all over removing public statues and tributes honouring residential school architects. At Ryerson University, the journalism school’s publications have already decided to change their names, while the statue of Egerton Ryerson that stood at the university will not be restored or replaced after it was toppled during demonstrations. In Calgary, a grade school that was originally named after Louis Langevin committed to changing its name, and in Prince Edward Island, city council voted unanimously to remove a John A. Macdonald statue.

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Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7.