During the prime minister’s weekly vaccine press conference he said he’s “deeply disappointed” by the position the Catholic Church has taken “now and over the past many years.”
“We’re still seeing resistance from the Church, possibly from the Church in Canada,” he said.
“I think 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.”
“It’s something we are all still waiting for the Catholic Church to do,” he added.
Between 1831 and 1996, Canada’s residential school system forcibly separated about 150,000 children from their homes. Many were subjected to abuse, rape and malnutrition in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called “cultural genocide.”
Run by the government and church groups, most of them Catholic, the schools’ stated aim was to assimilate indigenous children.
Trudeau said that he asked the Pope in 2017 to consider apologizing for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in 2018 that the Pope could not personally apologize for the schools.
The prime minister also recognized the need for stronger measures if the Catholic Church does not show the leadership that “quite frankly is supposed to be at the core of our faith — of forgiveness and responsibility, acknowledging truth.”
He said the government has tools available to compel the church to disclose documents, but he indicated he does not want to resort to taking the institution to court.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced last week that ground-penetrating radar had located what are believed to be the unmarked graves of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The news has sparked national outrage and grief, and has led to mounting calls for the federal government and church to investigate more potential school burial sites.
Trudeau said it’s going to be important for Catholics across the country to reach out to bishops and cardinals on this issue.
Though over 60 per cent of residential schools were run by the Catholic Church, the Canadian Catholic Church did not have a unified role in the residential school system. The structure is a decentralized one, which means decisions are made by individual dioceses or orders.
Individual bishops have, over the years, apologized for the role that different dioceses played in the residential schools system.
In 1991, the Oblates offered an apology for its part in Canada’s residential schools system.
Speaking on behalf of the 1200 Oblates missionaries at the time, then-President of the Oblates Rev. Doug Crosby said, “The Oblates of Canada wish to pledge ourselves to a renewed relationship with Native Peoples which, while very much in line with the sincerity and intent of our past relationship, seeks to move beyond past mistakes to a new level of respect and mutuality.”
In April 2009, Pope Benedict XVI apologized to a delegation from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations for the abuse experienced by children in residential schools and called the treatment “deplorable.”
Following the news of the discovery in Kamloops, a number of bishops released statements.
Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed his “sorrow for the heartrending loss of the children,” while Nova Scotia Archbishop Brian Dunn shared his “deep sadness for the tragic loss of the children.”
“Acknowledging and bringing to light this dark chapter of our Catholic and Canadian history is difficult but necessary in order to be able to do and be better,” the statement said.
“I continue to be committed to all who have been mistreated and hurt by the residential school experience, in which church members participated knowingly or unknowingly.”
In a statement emailed to Global News Friday, NDP MP Charlie Angus said it’s been three years since his party brought a motion to Parliament calling for the formal apology from the Catholic Church and for them to disclose all “documents pertaining to residential schools and for the Church to pay the share it owes to survivors under the compensation agreement.”
“It’s been three years and we’re still waiting,” he said.
— With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters