WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The Catholic religious order that operated residential schools in Saskatchewan and British Columbia where hundreds of unmarked graves have been found has made a formal “commitment to transparency” to disclose all historical documents in its possession that are related to the schools.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate operated 48 schools, including the Marieval Indian Residential School in the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
On Thursday, the Cowessess First Nation announced the preliminary discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said last month a preliminary scan had detected the remains of an estimated 215 children near the former residential school in Kamloops.
The discoveries have sparked public outcry for full transparency from clergy involved in the residential school system.
The religious group had previously said it would release records pertaining to the institution in Kamloops, but Thursday’s statement marked a “formal commitment” to “disclose and not block access” to records from all schools with which it was involved.
Father Ken Thorson, leader of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, says his order has agreed to turn over school records kept in hand-written diaries, as soon as digital copies can be made. “The work of this transfer I hope will begin soon,” he said. <a href=”https://t.co/sOvkssT6aQ”>https://t.co/sOvkssT6aQ</a> <a href=”https://t.co/KoP8Vre78L”>pic.twitter.com/KoP8Vre78L</a>
“We remain deeply sorry for our involvement in residential schools and the harms they brought to Indigenous peoples and communities,” the statement said.
Possible legal action if records not released
Chief Bobby Cameron with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) noted the oblates had promised in the past to release records pertaining to residential schools they’d operated.
But those promises never yielded results and Cameron reiterated his calls for all organizations associated with residential schools in Canada to release records and information about them on Friday.
Cameron said he was sick and tired of waiting, adding that privacy laws, which the oblates’ statement cited as a possible challenge to releasing residential school records, were “nonsense.”
“There was no privacy when all those priests and nuns were doing this to our young children, there was no privacy then,” he said.
“There’s no privacy. What there is, though, is more truth to be uncovered. More truth to be told of what really went on.”
Cameron said if the oblates don’t release every record available, or prolong the record releasing process, the FSIN would look at possible legal actions it can take to ensure documents are made available.
Sisters of St. Ann documents
Earlier this week, the Sisters of St. Ann, who staffed the Kamloops Indian Residential School among others, agreed to release all its remaining documentation on the running of the school.
The organization signed a memorandum of understanding with the Royal B.C. Museum on June 21, with the agreement set to come into effect July 1. The memorandum will stay in place until all the documents are reviewed, audited, and made available to the B.C. archives in 2025. The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation may also request documents.
The Sisters of St. Ann had previously refused to release its full records due to claims that they were not all directly relevant. But the order has now changed its position.
“We affirm our commitment to collaborate in finding the truth and will assist in the process in whatever way we can,” said spokesperson Sister Marie Zarowny.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of B.C., said the centre will act in part as an independent auditor for the Sisters of St. Ann documents, alongside the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).
They are putting priority on digitizing records, especially student illness and death records, to increase the accessibility of these records for affected communities, said Turpel-Lafond.
University of Saskatchewan Associate Professor Winona Wheeler, who is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation, said she is hopeful that the records will contain vital information about the residential schools and Indigenous children who were students there.
“We need to be able to identify the graves. We need to be able to identify the bodies. And the church records are kind of our last option to do that,” said Wheeler.
But Wheeler said she is skeptical about how much information is there, and how long it will take for the records to be digitized and released.
She also said federal government records were poorly kept, but since churches ran the schools, they may have more detailed information about day-to-day operations and student deaths.
‘Delays can cause ongoing distrust, distress and trauma’
In Thursday’s statement, the oblates said they have worked to make historical documents available through universities, archives and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The oblates said that work is not complete because of complications with provincial and national privacy laws. They asked for guidance from organizations familiar with those laws.
“We further acknowledge that delays can cause ongoing distrust, distress and trauma to Indigenous peoples across British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the rest of the country,” the statement said.
The oblates also committed to seeking guidance from First Nations and governments.
“We will work with bishops and other leaders in the Catholic Church to support full truth in these matters,” the statement said.
Stephanie Scott, executive director of the NCTR, said Catholic groups aren’t the only officials who need to help by releasing records.
“The government and provincial archives … have a responsibility in getting those outstanding records to us,” Scott told CBC on Friday. “We’re still negotiating for records to be found and to be placed at the NCTR in our archives.
“It has been a frustrating experience because, really, this is about children and people need to be reminded of that, too.”
In 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that thousands of residential school records be destroyed. Since 2020, the federal government has tried to block the enactment of a statistical report outlining residential school abuse claims.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
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