A protester in Toronto takes the RCMP, the federal government and the Church to task for residential schools. Photo by Michael Swan

Trudeau’s comments ‘unhelpful’ to Indigenous reconciliation

  • June 10, 2021

Cardinal Thomas Collins said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call for the Catholic Church to step up its responsibility for residential schools is “unhelpful” to the reconciliation process.

Toronto’s archbishop told media June 6 that the remarks by the prime minister were unfair and said the Catholic Church has been working continuously on reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous.

“It is unfortunate for the prime minister to be taking this kind of attitude to the efforts we’ve been making,” said Collins following his live-streamed Mass from St. Michael’s Cathedral-Basilica where he apologized “in a very particular way for the instances of physical and sexual abuse that occurred in those schools.”

Trudeau, in a June 4 news conference, chastised the Catholic Church, saying that as a Catholic he is “deeply” disappointed that years after asking Pope Francis to apologize for the Church’s role in residential schools such an apology has yet to be issued.

“Many Catholics like myself over the course of the past many days wonder why the Catholic Church in Canada is silent, is not stepping up, is not showing … leadership,” he said.

He said other faith communities that were involved with residential schools have been more willing to formally take responsibility and he called on Canadian Catholics to press the Church to officially apologize.

“We’re still seeing resistance from the Church,” Trudeau said.

He also implied that the federal government has “tools” that it can use if the Church does not release more documents and information about its involvement with residential schools in Canada.

“No one that I know of is trying to hide records,” Collins told the CBC. “If anyone is, they shouldn’t.”

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which ran the Kamloops Indian Residential School, said most of its school records are available at the Royal B.C. Museum and they are working to digitize or locate other records, while the Archdiocese of Vancouver has vowed to make all its documents available. It’s known that thousands of documents related to Canada’s residential schools were destroyed by the government in the 1930s.

The cardinal noted that since the 1990s Catholic leaders, clergy, women religious and laity “have been engaged in the most difficult work — the listening, the dialogue, the penance for our sins and the personal encounter and journey to true reconciliation.” He said Trudeau’s comments express “sentiments that are unfair and based on some misunderstanding.”

“I would think it’s more helpful for the prime minister to join with us in this process rather than making these rather sharp and unfair comments. We need to work together.”

The cardinal said the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops school “provides yet another opportunity for us to learn more about this dark chapter in our history and the painful journey experienced by so many of our Indigenous brothers and sisters.”

“Far from attempting to defend or rationalize these cases of abuse in any way, we wish to state publicly that we acknowledge they were inexcusable, intolerable and a betrayal of trust in one of its most serious forms,” Collins said. “We deeply and very specifically, apologize to every victim of such abuse and we seek help in searching for means to bring about healing.”

He said the Church was wrong to take part in the system where Indigenous children were removed from their families and placed in residential schools, mostly operated by various denominations, across the country.

“I think we as Christians need to be particularly regretful and sorry that we took part in that particular system,” Collins said. “It was a governmental program that essentially took little children away from their families.

“I don’t know what the religious groups or the Catholic groups were thinking. They probably wanted to advance their mission. But to participate in anything that took kids away from their families? All we stand for are families. I’m just so sorry that it happened.”

The political and moral firestorm that has been felt across the country since the discovery in Kamloops has prompted special debates in Parliament and the quick passage of a bill to create a federal National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to held on Sept. 30.

Former Abegweit First Nation Chief and now Senator Brian Francis told the Senate that such a day is needed to make sure the experiences of residential school survivors are never forgotten.

“Most of us cannot begin to understand the abuse and trauma all endured, or the strength it has taken for some of them to come forward and relive it,” Francis said. “Without the courageous and persistent efforts of survivors, the shameful treatment of Indigenous people would not have been brought to light.”

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