Canadian archbishop says Trudeau comments on Church's role in residential schools 'unfair'

A Canadian archbishop is speaking out about comments made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the Catholic Church’s involvement in the residential school system.

Speaking on CTV News Channel on Sunday, Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Toronto, said comments made by Trudeau, who has called for the release of records related to a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., where the remains of 215 children were discovered, were "unfair."

"I think it's much more helpful, as we're all working on this long journey of reconciliation to work together, and not to be making these kinds of unfair attacks upon those who are trying their best to bring about and to work with all the Indigenous people for reconciliation," the archbishop said.

Trudeau said on Friday the Church needs to "step up" and to take responsibility.

"As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed by the decision that the Catholic Church has taken now and over the past many years," Trudeau told reporters on Friday.

"I think it might also be good for the government to realize they’re asking us to improve the way we’re responding to this great tragedy, we’re trying, we’re making great progress, but we’ve got a long way to go always, I think the prime minister should look to his own government they also have many things to do," the archbishop said.

Collins said the individual dioceses and archdioceses involved in the residential school system have issued apologies. He also pointed to a private meeting that Pope Benedict XVI held with Indigenous leaders in 2009, where he expressed his "sorrow."

"The Indigenous people and the bishops and the whole Church in Canada have been working together on a pathway of reconciliation," Collins told CTV News Channel on Sunday.

His comments come hours after Pope Francis called for religious and political authorities to "shed light on this sad affair" and "commit humbly to a path of reconciliation and healing" after the discovery of what is believed to be the remains of 215 children buried at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

But Rev. Dr. Carmen Lansdowne, a minister with the United Church of Canada and a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, says the 2009 meeting was insufficient for many survivors of the residential school systems, who had sought a formal public apology.

"The previous apology that came from Pope Benedict… was not a formal apology. It was in a personal conversation and the survivors have asked for the Pope to come to Canada and to make a formal apology in the matter similar to the one that was made in 2010 in Ireland for the sexual abuse cases," said Lansdowne in an interview with CTV News Channel.

First Nations communities have also been fighting to get access to residential school records from the Catholic Church. Collins agreed that any Catholic organization should release any records they have and said that the Church doesn't have any thing to hide.

"To suggest that the Catholic Church or the bishops or the Vatican or somebody is trying to hide documents is just unfair," said Collins.

While the Pope didn’t apologize on Sunday, Collins says an apology "may very well be something that will be on the path ahead."

"I think it would be very good for the Holy Father to meet as Pope Benedict did with people from the Indigenous community along with the rest of the Catholic community, and to talk with them and to express his sorrow there," said Collins.

Even if the Pope issues a formal apology, Lansdowne says there's far more to be done for churches to work towards reconciliation.

"There's so many things that the churches can be doing to make restitution for this history, and it's not a one-time apology. It's not a one-time payment of claims for sexual abuse and physical abuse and spiritual abuse," she said. "It's a continued journey and a willingness to listen to indigenous people for the living legacy of residential schools."

With files from the Canadian Press.

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.