Federal government under pressure to collect records from Rome

Two NDP members of Parliament wrote to Canada’s justice minister last week calling on him to take the “necessary steps” to have documents, some of which were recently revealed to be in Rome, returned to Canada. 

Nunavut MP says she knows intergenerational trauma and understands the need for answers, justice

Lori Idlout, MP for Nunavut, says the records and evidence of residential schools need to be in Canada. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The federal government is under pressure to demand Catholic church entities hand over relevant residential school records to Canadian investigators and survivor communities.

Two NDP members of Parliament wrote to Canada's Justice Minister David Lametti last week calling on him to take the "necessary steps" to have documents, some of which were recently revealed to be in Rome, returned to Canada. 

"We are writing to express our dismay regarding reports that the Oblate religious order has shifted archival records relating to residential schools in Canada to the Vatican," states the letter from the New Democrats, referring to a CBC story detailing the experience of Ottawa historians and their discovery of missing Canadian records.

"Any documents relating to the Oblate control of residential schools are evidence and must be treated as such."

The letter was signed by northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus and Lori Idlout, Nunavut MP and critic for Northern Affairs and Crown-Indigenous relations. 

The Oblates, a Catholic order that ran 48 residential schools across Canada, also operated the Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut. That is where Idlout's parents went to school. 

Former students at the Chesterfield Inlet school and its residence have previously spoken of being physically and sexually abused.

"Having lived with the experiences of intergenerational trauma, what happened at residential schools was a crime," said Idlout.

"We need to make sure that these evidences stay in Canada so that we can ensure that First Nations, Métis and Inuit are able to use them to make sure that we're getting the justice that we deserve." 

Inuit students at a Catholic-run school in Chesterfield Inlet in 1954. The photo is now part of the collection at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and it originated from the Deschâtelets-NDC Archives in Richelieu, Que. (NCTR)

'Streamlining' archives

Historians recently told CBC they uncovered new evidence to suggest some archival records relating to residential schools in northern Saskatchewan are now only available in Rome. 

"The records that we had looked at here are no longer in this country," said Brenda Macdougall, a professor and research chair in Métis family and community traditions at the University of Ottawa.

Idlout, a lawyer who won her seat in September's federal election, said on the campaign trail she heard stories from residential school survivors in Canada's North. 

"It was such a heartache to hear these experiences," she said. 

"I do hope that they take seriously our request and our demands to make sure that the documents are taken back. We need to make sure that these stories, these pieces of evidence, these important stories don't end up in a vault."

Father Ken Thorson, an Oblate leader in Ottawa, told CBC his order's extensive archive has been refining its policies, tools and practices.

"This includes streamlining duplicates, when the original documents exist elsewhere. If the researchers are being directed to Rome," he said. "The researchers are now being directed to the original source."

A spokesperson from the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller did not address these latest revelations. 

But Miller's office said the Liberal government, and the prime minister, have already publicly urged the Catholic church to turn over documents.

The NDP wants more.

"We are calling on you to take steps to have those documents returned to Canada. The Vatican may claim diplomatic immunity, but this cannot be used to screen crimes against children," the MPs state in the letter.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these 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.