Grim discoveries of many hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops and Marieval Indian Residential Schools have renewed calls for the Government of Canada and Christian Churches to be accountable for their parts in a campaign of genocide waged against First Nations.
So far, the Catholic Church has been especially adept at escaping legal and political responsibility for its leading role in these crimes against humanity. Taking on the Catholic Church now will make dealing with the other perpetrators look like child’s play.
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (May 2006) is a logical place to start an enquiry into the details of the Catholic Church’s operation of Indian Residential Schools. The IRSSA represents the consensus reached between legal counsel for former students, legal counsel for the Churches, the Assembly of First Nations and other Indigenous organizations, and the Government of Canada. Three IRSSA Schedules deal with the Catholic Church specifically:
- Schedule C – Corporate Catholic Defendants (April 2006)
- Schedule H – Catholic Releasees (April 2006)
- Schedule O-3 – The Catholic Entities Church Agreement (n.d. 2006)
Legal claims may yet be brought against the Catholic Church for its repeated violation of the IRSSA, and other legal claims and political actions may be initiated against the Catholic Church beyond the narrow confines of the IRSSA.
Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement
Thomas McMahon was the Executive Director and then Chief Counsel of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC). While he had no involvement in any events that lead to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), McMahon would later meet many of the key players, attend important conferences where key players discussed those events, and review important documents relating to those events. These opportunities allowed McMahon to publish a remarkable series on the IRSSA.
In one essay, ‘And Then the Pope Died’ – The Timeline for How Canada Reached a Settlement Agreement on Indian Residential Schools (July 2017), McMahon highlights how the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Doe v. Bennett, 2004 SCC 17 so far has effectively immunized the Catholic Church in Canada from legal accountability:
“The Court refused to deal with the issue of the liability of the Roman Catholic Church because ‘[t]he record does not provide the clear picture of the details of the Church’s hierarchy or of the relationship between the Church and its constituent parts’. (para. 35) … The events relating to Doe v. Bennett are part of an extraordinary series of court decisions, described in detail elsewhere. This was one of series of court cases that made it clear that Canadian courts were not going to impose liability on the Roman Catholic Church as a whole [my emphasis]. …
“Former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, appointed as Canada’s representative in the negotiation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, said: ‘One of the challenges within the church group was that the Catholic church does not have a national organization. There is a United Church of Canada, Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church of Canada, but there is not a Catholic Church of Canada [my emphasis]. There are individual dioceses and parishes that have entity statuses. … That added to the complexity.’ The Truth and Reconciliation Commission would find out just how much it added to the complexity when it tried and mostly failed to obtain all records relevant to Indian residential schools, which was the legal obligation on each one of those Catholic entities.” [p 59]
To this day, the Catholic Church hews closely to the defense that it staked out during the IRSSA negotiations. For example, here’s the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB)’s carefully-crafted opening statement about Indian Residential Schools and the TRC (accessed June 27, 2021):
“The Catholic community in Canada has a decentralized structure. Each Diocesan Bishop is autonomous in his diocese and, although relating to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, is not accountable to it.
“Approximately 16 out of 70 Catholic dioceses in Canada were associated with the former Indian Residential Schools, in addition to about three dozen Catholic religious communities. Each diocese and religious community is corporately and legally responsible for its own actions. The Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the Residential Schools, nor was the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
The CCCB goes on to offer two formulaic apologies: “Various types of abuse experienced at some residential schools have moved us to a profound examination of conscience as a Church” (1993) and “We are sorry and deeply regret the pain, suffering and alienation that so many experienced” (1991).
Corporate Catholic Defendants
Schedule O-3 identifies fourty-eight Corporate Catholic Defendants, who are parties to the IRSSA:
|Sisters of Charity
|The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Halifax
|Les Soeurs De Notre Dame-Auxiliatrice
|Les Soeurs de St. Francois D’Assise
|Insitut Des Soeurs Du Bon Conseil
|Les Soeurs de Saint-Joseph de Saint-Hyacinthe
|St. Hyacinthe Quebec
|Les Soeurs De Jesus-Marie
|Les Sœurs de L’Assomption de la Sainte Verge
|Les Soeurs de l’Assomption de la Saint Vierge de l’Alberta
|Les Soeurs de la Charité de St.-Hyacinthe
|Les Oeuvres Oblates de l’Ontario
|Les Résidence Oblates du Québec
|La Corporation Episcopale Catholique Romaine de la Baie James
|Soeurs Grises de Montréal
|Sisters of Charity of Alberta
|Les Soeurs de La Charité des T.N.O.
|Hôtel-Dieu de Nicolet (HDN)
|The Grey Nuns of Manitoba Inc.
|La Corporation Episcopale Catholique Romaine de la Baie d’ Hudson
|Missionary Oblates – Grandin
|St. Albert AB
|Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée du Manitoba
|St. Boniface MB
|The Archiepiscopal Corporation of Regina
|The Sisters of the Presentation
|Prince Albert SK
|The Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault St. Marie
|North Bay ON
|Les Soeurs de la Charité d’Ottawa
|Oblates of Mary Immaculate – St. Peter’s Province
|The Sisters of Saint Ann
|Sisters of Instruction of the Child Jesus
|The Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Angel Oregon
|Mt. Angel OR, USA
|Les Peres Montfortains
|The Roman Catholic Bishop of Kamloops – Corporation Sole
|The Bishop of Victoria, Corporation Sole
|The Roman Catholic Bishop of Nelson, Corporation Sole
|Order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the Province of British Columbia
|The Sisters of Charity of Providence of Western Canada
|La Corporation Episcopale Catholique Romaine de Grouard
|Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Keewatin
|The Pas MB
|La Corporation Archiépiscopale Catholique Romaine de St. Boniface
|Les Missionnaires Oblates de St. Boniface
|Roman Catholic Archiepiscopal Corporation of Winnipeg
|La Corporation Episcopale Catholique Romaine De Prince Albert
|Prince Albert SK
|The Roman Catholic Bishop of Thunder Bay
|Thunder Bay ON
|Immaculate Heart Community of Los Angeles CA
|Los Angeles, CA
|Archdiocese of Vancouver
|Roman Catholic Diocese of Whitehorse
|The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Mackenzie-Fort Smith
|The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Prince Rupert
|Prince George BC
|OMI Lacombe Canada Inc.
Schedule O-3 lists three Other Catholic Entities, who are not parties to the IRSSA, but agreed with the Government to provide, inter alia, payment of Compensation:
- Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada
- Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation for the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario
- Daughters of Mary
Oblates of Mary Immaculate
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate (Oblates) represent seven of the fourty-eight (about 15%) Corporate Catholic Defendants, who are parties to the IRSSA [italicized entries in Table 1]. The Oblates operated fourty-eight of the sixty-two (about 77%) Catholic-run institutions in Canada, including the Kamloops and Marieval Indian Residential Schools.
Thirty years ago, the President of the Oblate Conference of Canada issued a four-page apology to First Nations on behalf of 1,200 Oblates living and ministering in Canada. The apology is remarkable in at least two respects:
First, the 1991 apology belies any pretense that the evil of Indian Residential Schools was unknown before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published its findings in 2015.
Second, the Oblates have spent thirty years violating their pledge “to support an effective process of disclosure vis-a-vis Residential Schools. We offer to collaborate in any way we can so that the full story of the Indian Residential Schools may be written, [my emphasis] that their positive and negative features may be recognized, and that an effective healing process might take place.” [p. 4]
In the wake of public outcry over the grim discovery of many hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds of former Indian Residential Schools in Kamloops and Marieval, the Oblates issued another Commitment to Documentation Transparency Regarding Residential Schools on June 21, 2021:
“Consistent with the Oblate Apology, given in 1991, [we] have worked to make our historical documents available through partnerships with universities, archives and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While some progress has been made, this disclosure is not complete, and has been complicated by issues of provincial and national privacy laws.
“We are not experts in the management and analysis of these historical documents or the complex privacy laws which apply. However, we must address these issues, as without a full review of the existing historical documentation from our order’s involvement, the truth of residential schools will not be fully known. Recognising that we are not the appropriate organisations to determine which documents can be released within the law, we are seeking guidance and instruction from expert organisations. And 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.
“For this reason, we declare that our commitment to transparency involves the following:
- We will disclose and not block access to the historical documents maintained by us and in our possession, as is possible within the law, to establish the truth of what happened in residential schools;
- We will seek guidance from and work with First Nations and federal and provincial governments on these matters;
- We will work with bishops and other leaders in the Catholic church to support full truth in these matters.”
Clearly, the Oblates have set themselves two tasks in the current crisis:
- To quell growing calls from Indigenous and non-Indigenous People that the Oblates be held legally responsible for their leading role in the campaign of genocide waged against First Nations.
- To undertake to do the right thing, finally, while avoiding any admission that the Oblates failed to comply with their legal obligations to disclose documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada under the terms and conditions of the IRSSA.
The Oblates’ long history of temporizing, obfuscating, excuse-making, and promise-breaking gives us every reason to doubt their good intentions this time around. We cannot take the Oblates at their word. We need public campaigns to shame them — and legal actions to compel them — into disclosing records of their complicity in the operation of Indian Residential Schools.
The Oblates’ Leadership
The Oblates’ corporate website details the organization’s General Administration and Central Government. For a public campaign to shame the Oblates into keeping their promises and meeting their obligations under the IRSSA, we recommend focusing on the Oblates’ six most senior officers (Superior General, Vicar General, 1st Assistant General, 2nd Assistant General, Secretary General, and Treasurer General), plus their General Councillor for Canada-US, and the two signatories to their June 21, 2021 Commitment to Documentation Transparency Regarding Residential Schools:
|Fr. Louis Lougen,
|Fr. Paolo Archiati,
|Fr. Cornelius NGOKA,
1st Assistant General,
|Fr. Ramon Maria Bernabe,
2nd Assistant General,
|Fr. Marek Jazgier,
|Fr. Marc Dessureault,
|Fr. Warren BROWN,
General Councillor for Canada-US,
|Fr. Ken Thorson,
Provincial – OMI Lacombe Canada,
|Père Luc Tardif,
Provincial – Notre‐Dame‐du‐Cap,
In a few days, we will outline some of our ideas a public campaign to shame the Oblates into keeping their promises and meeting their obligations under the IRSSA. Meanwhile, please share your own thoughts here and on social media.