Canada's justice minister mulls legal protection of residential school burial sites

·3 min read

OTTAWA — Federal Justice Minister David Lametti says he is open to the idea of considering different legal avenues when it comes to residential schools with burial grounds — in particular the possibility of protecting these sites and criminalizing anyone who might try to damage them or hide evidence.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Lametti says he has received a request to look at what legal levers may exist to ensure these sites are protected.

He stresses that all levels of government want to take their lead from Indigenous communities and leaders about what they would like to do with the individual school buildings, grounds and burial sites.

Lametti also says it would be difficult to go back in time and criminalize behaviours or actions done as far back as 150 years ago.

But for those looking for some level of legal accountability, the justice minister says he would be open to the idea of protecting these sites from tampering.

He adds that if Indigenous leaders request it, he would examine the possibility of holding people criminally responsible who try to destroy or "hide facts."

"I'm willing to look at that, that certainly would come within the bailiwick of the justice minister and the criminal law power and I'm certainly open to that," he said.

"Our Public Prosecution Service and police services are getting better, they have a lot of work to do, but they're getting much better at understanding the challenges of looking at these kinds of crimes that were committed against Indigenous people in the past."

Meanwhile this morning in Ottawa, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the Pope needs to issue an apology for the role the Catholic Church played in Canada's residential school system.

A papal apology was one of the 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally asked the Pope to consider such a gesture during a visit to the Vatican in 2017.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced in 2018 that the Pope could not personally apologize for residential schools, even though he has not shied away from recognizing injustices faced by Indigenous people around the world.

Miller says it's "shameful" that an apology hasn't been issued to date and there is a responsibility that lies squarely on the shoulders of Catholic bishops in Canada.

His comments come after the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc announced last week that ground-penetrating radar had located what are believed to be the unmarked graves of 215 children at a former school in Kamloops, B.C.

Miller and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett also say that $27 million, originally earmarked in the 2019 budget, will now be urgently made available to uncover unmarked graves at former residential schools across the country.

The government-sponsored, church-run institutions operated in Canada for more than 120 years and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ruled it constituted a cultural genocide.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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