OTTAWA — Catholic entities who hold records from the Manitoba residential schools they used to run say they’re committed to providing as much documentation as possible, after the recent uncovering of unmarked graves.
Advocates doubt that promise, however, after years of trying to pry evidence from the Roman Catholic Church.
"It’s nearly impossible to pin them down," said John Milloy, a historian who has researched residential schools for decades. "People will only be satisfied with full disclosure."
In June, the two orders responsible for all six Catholic residential schools in Manitoba pledged to make more records accessible: the Grey Nuns and the Oblates.
Both were asked to provide records by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which issued its final reports in 2015 and transferred all documents to the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
"That part of their history is contained in our records, and so we need to find ways to make sure they have as much access to our records as possible," Rev. Ken Thorson, who leads the English branch of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, said in a recent interview.
Both the English- and French-speaking Oblates branches have pledged to provide survivors all historical documents, in whatever way doesn’t breach privacy legislation.
Separately, the Grey Nuns of Manitoba, which was dissolved years ago, had sent its residential school records from St. Boniface to an affiliate in Edmonton in 1999. The records were transferred to Montreal a decade later.
Before that move in 2019, the Grey Nuns provided almost all records to a residential school research project, which was later folded into a federal department who shared the records with the TRC.
Yet, those documents excluded more than a dozen boxes of records protected by solicitor-client privilege, as well as photographs.
"The only documents remaining to be sent by the congregation to the NCTR are some 3,000 digitized photographs, which we hope to have delivered in early July 2021," Mylène Laurendeau, head archivist for the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, wrote in an email.
Yet, that doesn’t include the records the Grey Nuns chose to withhold.
In the final months of the TRC, an internal April 2015 memo flagged 17 Catholic entities who hadn’t handed over any documents, according to a record obtained by CBC News.
One was the Archdiocese of Winnipeg, which said in an email statement it provided all documents by June 2015, which researchers corroborated.
Those records involved three schools: Sandy Bay, Pine Creek, and Assiniboia (Winnipeg).
Records for the other Catholic residential schools — located at Cross Lake, Sagkeeng and The Pas — are likely among those held by the Grey Nuns.
The April 2015 internal memo notes the Grey Nuns would not hand over any more documents than the ones it provided in the early 2000s, despite an "Excel document, which includes an inventory of documents withheld from the TRC."
The issue persisted into September 2017, according to NCTR internal records obtained by researcher Ed Sadowski, who is a retired Algoma University professor.
A document Sadowski obtained through a freedom of information request shows the Grey Nuns withheld "16 boxes (possibly 17) of litigation material," some of which was used to craft the 2006 residential school settlement, but that the order explicitly asked to not have shared with the NCTR.
Meanwhile, the NCTR obtained just 388 of 3,493 photos deemed relevant to documenting residential schools by fall 2017.
Milloy, who was involved in the TRC record collection, said the Grey Nuns’ response is characteristic of Catholic entities, which have shown less transparency and urgency than any Christian denomination.
"The Protestant churches fell all over themselves, after the settlement agreement, to be helpful. You were sort of tripping over United Church people when trying to finish your research," Milloy recalled.
The TRC, and the 2006 settlement that predated the commission, sought all records relevant to the residential school experience, but didn’t define relevancy.
Some Catholic nuns kept a journal of daily activities and happenings, called a codex, which church entities withheld.
"They were declared by the church as personal records, and therefore not relevant," Milloy said.
"When we know there are records not being turned over for whatever reason, the suspicion automatically grows that the Catholic church is likely not disclosing other sorts of records."
This past month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former TRC commissioner Murray Sinclair asked Catholics to pressure their church hierarchy to provide records. That’s sown confusion among activists, as there is no public listing of which diocese, oblate organization or individual church is withholding documents.
Milloy said lawyers faced that same confusion more than a decade ago, when survivors came forward with abuse allegations and law firms couldn’t figure out which Catholic authority to sue.
The NCTR declined four interview requests this month about which specific records it lacks and who is preventing them from being accessed, other than those relating to the former school in Kamloops, B.C.
The centre instead issued a general statement, saying it takes guidance from survivors and elders, and will soon provide information on accessing records held by the Oblates.
"It’s important to recognize that this is not only a Catholic Church issue. The federal government and provincial governments also have not shared all the records they agreed to provide to the NCTR," reads the statement.
Ry Moran, former director of the NCTR, said the photos the Grey Nuns hold are important to survivors, and should have been handed over before the TRC wrapped up in 2015.
"Photographs that depict residential schools and student life in those schools are also clearly relevant, making the collection and production of those records essential," said Moran, who now works at the University of Victoria.
Sadowski says the Winnipeg-based centre is hamstrung by privacy laws.
"They’re handcuffed because all the information they have is subject to federal or provincial privacy legislation, never mind whatever restrictions the churches have imposed," said Sadowski.
He’s tried for years to get NCTR to provide an inventory of what documents it holds, including ones only accessible to survivors, as the list would reveal which records are missing.
Milloy added federal departments are likely sitting on a trove of records. During litigation surrounding the St. Anne’s school in Ontario, a court ordered the Justice Department in 2014 to provide hundreds of police records it held, documenting decades of reported abuse and suspicious deaths at the school.
"This is a big game that’s being played by everybody," Sadowski said.
This weekend, Manitoba federal cabinet minister Dan Vandal joined calls for investigations and criminal charges for what happened at residential schools.
But Sadowski said he can’t see Ottawa or the churches sharing records that could make them liable for more compensation beyond the agreement all parties reached in 2005.
"The churches say they’ll hand over stuff, but even in the settlement agreement, the court actually told them to do that — and they haven’t," he said.
"Now they’re going around saying they will? I don’t believe it. I find that really hard to believe."