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A woman takes a picture of the memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters

Oblates pledge transparency on residential schools

  • July 2, 2021

In the wake of the Cowessess discovery of up to 751 unmarked graves, Western Canada’s Oblate missionary order is embracing a new level of transparency, making more documents about daily operations at the order’s 48 residential schools across Canada available.

“Without a full review of the existing historical documentation from our order’s involvement, the truth of residential schools will not be fully known,” provincial superiors Fr. Ken Thorson of the Oblates’ Lacombe province and Fr. Luc Tardif of the Notre-Dame-du-Cap province said in a “Joint Statement of Commitment” issued the day of the Cowessess discovery.

The new documents to be made available to researchers and First Nations are the Codex Historicus, a kind of journal of daily activities, along with photographs, human resources records and teacher profiles.

The new Oblate commitment to openness and transparency hasn’t quite won over former Cowessess Chief Terrance Pelletier.

“They lawyered-up,” Pelletier told The Catholic Register. “I’m old enough, I’ve been to school long enough, I’ve dealt with people long enough that I know what that’s all about.”

Pelletier’s suspicions are fuelled by Oblate explanations about how the release of documents has been “complicated by issues of provincial and national privacy laws.”

But Thorson insists the order is not dodging anything or holding anything back.

“It’s always been a question to me why we wouldn’t make them (school records) available. I never really understood it and I don’t understand it now. But we’re making them available,” Thorson said. “We’re not being driven by the lawyers on this.”

The Oblates are being pulled in two directions by their legal obligations and their desire for transparency.

“The issue is around personnel files, of course,” Thorson said. “We have privacy issues we can’t ignore. And yet, the history is there…. Part of their history is potentially located in those files. How do we determine what is appropriate to share. Or how do we determine an appropriate mechanism or a process to determine how we balance those two needs.”

Pelletier intends to put whatever mechanism or process the Oblates come up with to the test.

“I’ve drafted a letter where I’m asking for certain documents. And I’m giving the reasons why I’m asking for certain documents. I want to see if those documents will come,” Pelletier said.

Pelletier sees a strong parallel between what the Cowessess First Nation endured at Marieval Indian Residential School and the history of abuse in Catholic institutions in Ireland. Pelletier has been to Ireland and spoken with Irish abuse survivors.

“What law prevents an institution from providing historical documents that would establish criminal actions? What documents exist that would show what would possibly provide evidence of serial abusers within the Catholic order?” Pelletier asked. “I’ve asked for specific documents. We’ll see if they’re coming.”

Thorson understands that people are not going to simply trust the Oblates to produce records.

“That question would go to an agreed-upon third party,” he said.

The Oblates are committed to rebuilding trust with Indigenous people in all their ministries, parishes and missions, said Thorson.

“I feel mostly for our men who are working in First Nations communities,” Thorson said. “They are on the ground with people that they love and who are really angry right now. They are committed to their people and to the ministry, as are the Oblates.”

Thorson isn’t asking Pelletier and other residential school survivors to trust or forgive the Oblates right now. But he insists the Oblates will not abandon their mission or the people.

“This is where we’re called to be, and not just the Oblates of Lacombe province or the Oblates of Canada, but the (global) Oblate congregation,” Thorson said. “This is a relationship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada that we’re all called to work on, towards healing.”

The Oblates stand by their 1991 apology given at the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage site in northern Alberta. Thorson is hopeful Indigenous Canadians will see the Pope apologize on Indigenous land.

“It’s clear that this is not something that is simply a photo-op,” he said. “It’s something that would have deep meaning for the Indigenous people of Canada and would truly assist many in the work of healing. It’s something I would like to see happen.”

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