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Catholic Church ignoring role in 'heinous crimes' against indigenous Canadians

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on April 16, 2021 in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo by AFP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has criticized the Catholic Church for ignoring its role in running many indigenous residential schools in the country following the recent discovery of the remains of more than 200 children at one former school.

Trudeau called on the Catholic Church to "take responsibility" and release records on indigenous residential schools under its direction after a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children of the indigenous Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc group was found last week at Kamloops Indian residential school near the town of Kamloops, British Columbia.

"As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed by the position the Catholic Church has taken now and over the past many years," Trudeau told reporters. "We expect the Church to step up and take responsibility for its role in this."

Trudeau recalled a May 2017 trip to the Vatican during which he sought a formal apology from Pope Francis for abuses of indigenous students, as well as access to church records to help account for more than 4,100 students believed to have died from disease or malnutrition.

"We're still seeing resistance from the Church," Trudeau said.

The Canadian premier warned that his government was prepared to take "stronger measures," possibly including legal action, to obtain the documents demanded by victims' families if the church fails to comply.

"Before we have to start taking the Catholic Church to court, I am very hopeful that religious leaders will understand that this is something they need to participate in," Trudeau added.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has yet to respond to the plea.

Canada has been convulsed by the discovery of the remains at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, especially as there were only 50 deaths officially on record there.

The school, one of many boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate the country's indigenous peoples, was established in 1890 under the leadership of the Roman Catholic church, and closed in 1978.

The educational facility was part of a cross-Canada network of 139 residential schools created to forcibly assimilate indigenous children by removing them from their homes and communities, and forbidding them from speaking their native languages or performing cultural practices.

A 2015 investigation into Canada's residential school system concluded that the system, typically run by Christian churches on behalf of Ottawa, constituted “cultural genocide,” with reports documenting physical abuse, rape, malnutrition and other atrocities against the school children.

The same investigation said that the students were exposed to outbreaks of measles, tuberculosis, influenza and other contagious diseases, which claimed the lives of more than 4,000 of 15,000 children attending these schools.

In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized for the system.   

'We do want an apology'

Rosanne Casimir, chief of the indigenous Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc group, reacted to the discovery of the mass grave on Friday and said, "We do want an apology" from the Catholic Church. “A public apology. Not just for us, but for the world."

Separately, United Nations human rights experts on Friday called on both Canada and the Vatican to further investigate the deaths of the children found in Kamloops.

Nine experts urged an internal and judicial investigation into the circumstances and responsibilities surrounding the deaths, saying in a statement that perpetrators of such crimes should be sanctioned and prosecuted.

“It is inconceivable that Canada and the Holy See would leave such heinous crimes unaccounted for and without full redress,” the statement added, referring to the central governing body of the Catholic Church.

The experts also called for similar investigations into Canada’s other residential schools.

Canada has, in recent years, been coming to terms with racial injustice suffered by its indigenous people, who make up about five percent of a population of nearly 37 million.

According to an investigation in 2019, the country was complicit in "race-based genocide" against indigenous women.

It said indigenous women were 12 times more likely to be killed or to disappear than other women in Canada.

The Canadian government has been blamed for an estimated 4,000 Indigenous women who have gone missing over the past years.

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