Madam Speaker, I am honoured to have the opportunity to rise today and speak to the motion from the member for Timmins—James Bay. I acknowledge that we are gathered here on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the member for bringing this important motion before the House of Commons. I am pleased to have worked co-operatively with him on some of the language. As always, we also want to thank the member for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou for his ongoing support of and advocacy for the survivors of residential schools.
Our government also wants to take this opportunity to show that reconciliation is not a partisan issue.
This motion reflects the previous and ongoing actions of the government on the three broad issues it addresses, and we will, therefore, be supporting it.
The residential school system was a systemic plan to remove indigenous children from their homes, families, and cultures, and to facilitate the stated policy of “killing the Indian in the child”. Students endured unconscionable physical and mental abuse, and generations of indigenous peoples were left emotionally scarred and culturally isolated.
Over a period of more than a century, an estimated 150,000 indigenous children attended those schools, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that at least 6,000 died. This calculated act of cultural genocide inflicted unimaginable long-term harm on the indigenous children who were forced to attend these schools, and created severe intergenerational trauma that indigenous communities and our country continue to confront.
This shameful part of our collective history spanned seven generations, many governments, and different political parties. I did not know when I was first elected to this House in 1997 that the last residential school had closed only in 1996. Healing the damage of residential schools would require the sustained action not only of involved governments and organizations, but of all Canadians. We must all continue to work toward educating ourselves about this dark chapter in Canadian history.
The work of the TRC has opened the eyes of many Canadians to the horrific truth of residential schools, but we now have so many new resources to teach us. For example, the truly important book Indian Horse, by the late Richard Wagamese, is something every Canadian should read, and it is now a film that every Canadian should see. It is the heart-wrenching account of the horrific abuse and its consequences.
Reconciliation is not an indigenous issue or a partisan issue. It is an issue that affects all Canadians.
In May 2005, the then justice minister Irwin Cotler appointed former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to move the resolution of residential school legacy from the courtroom to the negotiating table. With good will from all sides, an agreement in principle was reached in November 2005 and signed by all parties.
This agreement in principle set out all the significant components of the settlement, including compensation for the survivors, commemoration of these tragic events, and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The final agreement was concluded in 2006 by the Conservative government, and was subsequently ratified by the courts.
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. It was signed by all parties following negotiations by representatives for Canada, former students, churches, the Assembly of First Nations, and Inuit representatives to resolve thousands of individual claims brought by former students across Canada.
In moving forward in the spirit of reconciliation, we need to ask forgiveness for past wrongs and acknowledge our mistakes.
Our indigenous partners and the survivors have also emphasized how important an apology can be to a renewed relationship.
When Prime Minister Harper apologized to residential school survivors on behalf of all Canadians right here in this chamber in 2008, it represented an essential step on the path toward healing the intergenerational wounds of these appalling historic wrongs.
The power of an apology can be profound. It is not only the acknowledgement of a past wrong, but often the first step toward healing and closure for those who were impacted. It is so much more than resolving legal liabilities or following the articles of an agreement. It is about providing those who have been hurt with the words they need to hear in order to forgive.
In 2006, I had the honour of apologizing on behalf of the Government of Canada to the Sayisi Dene for the government's role in forcibly relocating their community 60 years ago, a forced relocation that caused death, hardship, and devastation. It was truly poignant in Tadoule Lake, in Churchill, and in Winnipeg. The survivors heard the words they had negotiated in order for the apology to be part of their healing journey and closure.
In 2017, the Prime Minister delivered an official apology on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians to the former students of Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools and their families. At an emotional gathering in Newfoundland and Labrador, he acknowledged the suffering and intergenerational trauma of those who had attended the schools, and their descendants.
One month ago, here in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister exonerated six Tsilhqot'in chiefs who had been wrongly executed 150 years ago.
The current leaders who were on the floor of the House to hear the apology expressed to me the deep impact of that long overdue acknowledgement on the members of their community.
This was also true in 2010 when Pope Benedict apologized to Irish victims of sexual abuse, and in 2015 when Pope Francis apologized in Bolivia to the indigenous peoples of the Americas for the grave sins of colonialism. In both of these admiral examples, the Catholic Church was on the right side of history.
It is in that context the Prime Minister formally requested an apology when he met Pope Francis at the Vatican last year. The Prime Minister said, “ I told him about how important it is for Canadians that we move forward on real reconciliation with indigenous peoples and highlighted how he could help by issuing an apology.”
I have witnessed the deep hurt the survivors and families are feeling as a result of the decision not to issue a papal apology, particularly the many indigenous people who are devout Catholics.
Call to action 58 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission states:
We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.
Our government continues to believe an apology from the Pope on behalf of the Catholic Church to survivors of the horrors of Canadian residential schools is an important step in acknowledging the past and moving toward reconciliation.
As Grand Chief Willie Littlechild, a former TRC commissioner and himself a survivor of three residential schools, has said:
It will give survivors that expression of regret. They want the Pope to say “I'm sorry”....
I hope it will happen. It gives people the opportunity to forgive, and that's important too. Many survivors will feel a sense of justice and reconciliation.
I am committed to continuing work with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, our indigenous partners, and the survivors on this shared journey of reconciliation. I have written to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and offered to help facilitate a meeting between the CCCB and survivors to personally hear what an apology would mean to them and how crucial it is to reconciliation in Canada. I am hopeful that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is seized with the issue of the apology and will undertake further outreach to communities, but an apology alone will not fix the harms of the past.
Today's motion reflects that.
The second part of the motion calls upon the Canadian Catholic Church to live up to its moral obligation and the spirit of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and resume best efforts to raise the full amount of the agreed upon funds
Pursuant to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the Catholic entities had three financial obligations: one, make a cash contribution of $29 million; two, provide in-kind services worth $25 million; and three, use best efforts to raise $25 million to support healing and reconciliation programs. While the Catholic entities have met the first two financial obligations, they have raised only $3.7 million of the $25 million to support the healing and reconciliation programs that are necessary.
In response to a court decision releasing the church of further legal liability, the previous government initiated further negotiations with the Catholic entities in the summer of 2015.
These discussions led to an agreement signed on October 30, five days before the current government came into power. This agreement released them from all additional legal responsibilities.
While the government acknowledges the Catholic entities no longer have a legal obligation to raise the balance of the committed funds for healing and reconciliation programs, we believe they still have a moral obligation to fulfill the spirit of the settlement agreement. All parties to the settlement agreement have a critical role to play in renewing the relationship with indigenous peoples in Canada. Since 2016, our government and I have publicly urged the Catholic entities to resume fundraising efforts to meet those moral obligations, and we will continue to do so.
The last component of today's motion calls on the Catholic entities “to make a consistent and sustained effort to turn over relevant documents when called upon by survivors of residential schools, their families, and scholars working to understand the full scope of the horrors of the residential school system in the interest of truth and reconciliation.”
There is a body of documents related to residential schools litigation which predates the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Some of these documents are subject to a legal restriction called “settlement privilege”, which renders them confidential.
In a number of rulings, the court has confirmed that the documents in question are subject to settlement privilege.
In order to have these documents, at the request of the residential school survivors, placed in the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, all the involved parties must waive settlement privilege. Our government recognizes the importance of preserving the truth-telling of the survivors, while acknowledging an obligation to respect directions provided under agreements and to protect survivors' privacy rights. In January 2018, I wrote to the head of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation confirming that Canada waives privilege over these protected documents so that a survivor's wish to share and preserve his or her story with the centre can be respected. I also wrote to the Catholic Church strongly encouraging it to do the same.
We must never let this dark, painful chapter of history be forgotten.
As I said earlier, and as I will keep saying, reconciliation is not only an indigenous issue, it is a Canadian imperative. It is not up to the federal government alone to advance this journey. We all have our own roles to play. All hon. members in this House have an opportunity now to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation by supporting this motion.
This motion does not ask the church to do anything the government has not already done itself. It is not about the church versus the government. This is about doing what is best for residential school survivors and helping them along the healing journey.