Trudeau Calls for the Catholic Church to Take Responsibility for Deaths of Indigenous Children

The prime minister is asking the Church to “step up” as UN human rights experts and Canadian lawyers call for a criminal investigation into both Canada and the Catholic Church after 215 Indigenous children were found buried under a residential school.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
June 4, 2021, 2:41pm
Justin Trudeau and Pope Francis
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is again calling on the Catholic Church to "step up" and take responsibility for the residential school system. Photo of Trudeau by the Canadian Press, photo of Pope Francis by Getty Images

(Update, 2:15 p.m.) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who personally asked Pope Francis to apologize to residential school survivors and their families in 2017, is asking the Catholic Church to “step up” and take responsibility for its role in residential schools after the bodies of 215 undocumented children, some as young as 3, were found buried under a former Catholic-run residential school.

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People across the country should put pressure on bishops and cardinals, Trudeau told reporters on Friday. 

“It’s going to be a really important moment to 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, as necessary,” Trudeau said. “We’re still seeing resistance from the Church, possibly from the Church in Canada.”

Canada and the Vatican are facing international condemnation for “large-scale human rights violations,” with UN human rights experts calling on Canada and the Catholic Church to conduct prompt and thorough criminal investigations.

According to court documents, Canada’s federal government has so far denied legal liability for residential schools, while the Vatican has refused previous requests to apologize and has stayed silent this week. 

“The judiciary should conduct criminal investigations into all suspicious death and allegations of torture and sexual violence against children hosted in residential schools, and prosecute and sanction the perpetrators and concealors who may still be alive,” says a statement issued by the UN’s Human rights Special Procedures office, which is staffed by independent, volunteer experts who advise on human rights issues.  

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Last week, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced it found the children under the former Kamloops Indian Residential School using ground-radar technology. The findings reiterated what Indigenous communities have been saying for years: there are unmarked graves at residential schools across the country. An estimated 4,000 to 15,000 children, many undocumented, were killed at residential schools nationwide.

Residential schools were funded by the Canadian government and operated by churches to forcibly assimilate an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. More than half of all schools were Catholic-run. 

“Large-scale human rights violations have been committed against children belonging to Indigenous communities,” the UN statement says. “It is inconceivable that Canada and the Holy See would leave such heinous crimes unaccounted for and without full redress.” 

The experts are also urging Canada to implement the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action, first published in 2015. So far, only eight of 94 have been implemented—and just one related to unmarked burials of children killed at residential schools. “For too many years, victims and their families have been waiting for justice and remedy. Accountability, comprehensive truth, and full reparation must be urgently pursued,” it says.

At the same time, a group of 15 lawyers has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Canada and the Vatican for crimes against humanity.

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“The complainants submit the deaths, mass unmarked grave, and general treatment of the 215 deceased children constitute crimes against humanity. The complainants also submit it is likely other such mass graves exist elsewhere in Canada in or around other residential schools and have been covered up by the government of Canada and/or Vatican, their agents, employees, or actors,” says the letter. It’s addressed to Karim Khan, chief prosecutor at the ICC.

The letter asks for an investigation into the circumstances of deaths and mass burials of the 215 children. “The aboriginal people of Canada, and all people of Canada, need assurance that the agents, employees, and actors of the government of Canada and the Vatican behind these crimes against humanity are subject to justice,” it says.

ICC can step in and investigate when countries refuse or are unable to do so themselves, and it can compel all those involved to submit relevant documents and information. The body steps in when at least one of four crimes—genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and aggression—is suspected. Crimes against humanity, or “serious violations committed as part of a large-scale attack against any civilian population,” the ICC site says, can include murder, rape, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, and enslavement, especially committed against women and children. 

On Thursday Vancouver Catholic Archdiocese apologized for the Church’s “unquestionably wrong” role in residential schools, and is now pledging resources for further investigations and related mental health support.

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