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Senate committee to question groups that have not released residential school records | CBC News

A Senate committee is pledging to hold a hearing this fall to demand answers from organizations that have not released records tied to Canada’s residential school system.

In a news release Wednesday, P.E.I. Sen. Brian Francis called it “disheartening” that so many governments and organizations haven’t released information that could bring “a measure of peace” to families and communities of children who died at the government-funded, church-run institutions.

“Canada cannot reconcile with its past without facing this truth,” Francis said in the release.

Francis, who is Mi’kmaw from Lennox Island First Nation, chairs the Senate standing committee on Indigenous Peoples.

The group issued an interim report Wednesday after studying the ongoing work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and the special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves associated with residential schools.

The report, titled Honouring the Children Who Never Came Home: Truth, Education and Reconciliation, offers six recommendations for the Liberal government to support the two offices.

The committee is urging Ottawa to expedite the transfer of all federal records to the NCTR, to ensure the centre is properly funded and to “take every action necessary” to combat residential school denialism.

A sticker of an orange t-shirt with the words 'Every Child Matters' on it affixed to a lamp post.
An ‘Every Child Matters’ sticker posted on a lamp post near the Vancouver Art Gallery. (David Horemans/CBC)

“Of real concern to the committee is the small group of vocal individuals who try to undermine survivors’ accounts of the hardships and abuse they experienced,” the report says.

The group is also calling on Ottawa to further support the interlocutor, Kimberly Murray, whom Justice Minister David Lametti appointed in June 2022 to recommend a new federal framework for the protection and treatment of burial sites and unmarked graves.

‘Do the right thing’

The report says “families have waited long enough” and urges both churches and governments to release all documents immediately.

“Federal government departments, provincial governments and religious organizations are standing between Indigenous Peoples and the truth of what was done to them in Canada’s name,” Nunavut Sen. Dennis Patterson said in the committee release. 

“There is still time for them to do the right thing.”

Kimberly Murray speaks at a podium.
Kimberly Murray speaks after being appointed as independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian residential schools, at a news conference in Ottawa in June 2022. (Justin Tsang/The Canadian Press)

The residential school system was central to Canada’s policies of cultural genocide, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 final report. The system was created to separate Indigenous children from their families and assimilate them into mainstream society, the commission said.

The system operated countrywide for more than a century, with a government-estimated 150,000 children passing through it, often being subjected to neglect, malnutrition and physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

The House of Commons last year unanimously adopted a motion urging the Liberals to recognize residential schools as genocide.

The NCTR has documented more than 4,000 deaths in the residential school system.

Decision to call witnesses welcomed

Special interlocutor Murray said she welcomed the committee’s decision to summon witnesses to explain themselves.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said.

“It puts a little bit of a spotlight on those entities directly, and so [they can] be exposed to questioning as opposed to just delivering the narrative they deliver.”

Access to some records remains contentious. The NCTR says it continues to seek things like archival Catholic Church documents and provincial and territorial vital statistics and coroner’s reports.

In an appendix, the committee names Library and Archives Canada, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, provincial and territorial governments, and eight Roman Catholic religious bodies as those who have outstanding records, according to the NCTR.

Murray said there are likely more.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Canada has ordered the destruction of documents, deemed confidential, that contain sensitive stories of abuse collected under the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, unless an individual consents to their preservation, a concern for both offices.

Stephanie Scott, NCTR executive director, said the centre works hard to obtain records from groups like the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic order that ran dozens of residential schools, but has found the process challenging at times — dealing with priests whose bosses are in Rome, for instance.

“It’s lengthy. It’s complicated,” she said.

“I hope that when the Senate compels them to come that they have an answer as to why and what the hold up is.”

That’s the intention, according to Francis.

“Until we have the proper records, this work will not be complete,” he said in an interview.

“It’s critically important to raise that awareness.”


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