Miller says he has 'confidence' Catholic Church would abide by subpoena of residential school archives

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says he has confidence that the Catholic Church will follow court processes should sensitive records about the residential school system in Canada be subpoenaed.

In an interview on CTV’s Question Period airing Sunday, Miller said unveiling the truth is the ultimate goal but getting to that place starts with frank discussions and negotiations with the church.

“Despite my criticism of the church of the last few days, I have confidence that the church will respect the court process, I have no indications of the contrary,” he said.

“And perhaps I'm naive but I'm a man of faith, I'm not Catholic, I’m Protestant. I've spent time in those institutions, I have good faith in others, I am hopeful in all this…I expect people to follow a court process and if there's any suspicion that these documents would be eventually subpoenaed, then those institutions have an obligation.”

The Catholic Church oversaw the majority of residential schools in Canada and unlike other churches, like the United and Presbyterian churches, it has not formally apologized for the damage they caused to Indigenous Peoples.

On May 28, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Since, then, there have been calls by First Nations leaders, human rights advocates, and opposition politicians for accountability and support from all levels of government as well as cooperation by the Catholic Church to find answers.

“There's a lot of death and there's a lot of records that have to be accessed. So don't fight the survivors, don't fight the leadership, don't fight what's going on with this proper investigation. They should open up their archives and their information so that we have access to all the records to document these are forgotten these are children,” said Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde during a separate interview on CTV’s Question Period.

The RCMP have opened an investigation into the site of the former residential school.

In a statement to CTV News, Staff Sergeant Bill Wallace, detachment commander with the Tk’emlúps Rural RCMP, confirmed that officers have opened a file in the case, but that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation remains the lead official in the matter.

“The Tk’emlúps Rural RCMP has attended the site, participated in meetings, and will continue working closely with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community leaders in determining the next steps and the best way to be involved in any investigative avenues explored going forward,” Wallace said in the statement.

Former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair, who was told about the RCMP investigation before it was announced publicly, criticized the police force’s early tactics in the investigation as a “typical heavy-handed” approach.

“I understand in British Columbia -- I got a call earlier this morning in fact -- that the RCMP now have declared that there’s a major investigation that’s going to occur into the bodies that have been located in Kamloops,” Sinclair said during a House of Commons’ committee hearing last week.

“They’re now beginning to question those who have made this story available and unfortunately, (in a) typical heavy-handed and ham-handed police way, they are simply intimidating people, rather than helping them.”

Miller said the government has closed off the airspace around the school because of concerns of drones flying overhead.

“We issued a NOTAM today, a notice to airmen….to keep people from going. There's a lot of interest in this site at the same time as people are gathering there and so there's a concern for people's health, first and foremost mental health, and we just want to respect that process,” he said.

On Wednesday, Ottawa announced that $27 million – already earmarked to assist Indigenous communities in locating and memorializing children who died at residential schools – would be distributed to those communities that request it.

Miller reiterated the importance that this process is led by Indigenous groups but that the government is there to offer support.

“I don't want it to sound equivocal like the federal government won't be there, but communities have to be front and centre. That’s precisely what the calls to action say, and that's what we'll do with other nations,” he said.

In terms of an apology from the Catholic Church, Miller says it “needs to be done.”

With files from CTV News’ Ben Cousins.

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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.