Even in the cases of documented cemeteries, “some graves may lie unrecognized after the decay and disappearance of wood grave markers and enclosing graveyard fences,” he wrote in his 44-page report released after the discovery at Kamloops. Government officials aimed to pay only the bare minimum for the cost of burials and rarely paid to return the bodies of deceased children to their home communities. Some deaths went unreported because the institutions were overwhelmed in an epidemic situation, Hamilton believes.
Hamilton noted that indigenous children suffered and died from communicable diseases at much higher rates than the general population in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These vulnerabilities were worsened by the poor conditions at “crowded, often unsanitary, and poorly constructed residential schools.”
As late as 1945, the death rate among indigenous children at the schools was as almost five times the death rate of other children the same age. This dropped to twice the average by the mid-20th century, in part due to the arrival of effective antibiotics and other improved medical care.
The Truth and Reconciliation report noted that in the early twentieth century there was at least one suggestion to address the rate of disease involved closing the residential schools and moving to a day school model on reservations. The move had support from some government officials and the Protestant communities, but then-Indian Affairs minister Frank Oliver would not move forward with the plan without the support of all the Christian communities, and Catholic support was lacking.
The commission said government, ecclesial, and school officials knew of the failures and poor health.
"If the question is, 'who knew what when?' the clear answer is: 'Everyone in authority at any point in the system's history'," the commission said.
In 2014 the Oblates’ then-superior general offered a “renewed apology,” committing the religious institute to “an effective process of disclosure” regarding residential schools. Facing a “complicated” archival situation, the Oblates said they have “worked diligently to live up to their obligations to make their archived material available.”
“They believe they have done so in good faith and are prepared to do more.”
On July 5, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation said it welcomed the Oblates’ efforts to expedite access to residential school records, which include codices, photographs, and staff files.
Previously the Oblates provided over 40,000 documents to the center.
On June 23 the Sisters of St. Ann, which was also involved in operating some residential schools, reached an agreement improving access to their records for the Royal British Columbia Museum and for the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.
The Lacombe Canada Oblates said they met their compensation obligations required by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. They are exploring other ways to support the Truth and Reconciliation Process.
“Oblates will continue to accompany Indigenous communities across Canada in supportive ministries on the ground,” the Oblates said. Retreat centers will offer educational events on indigenous justice to help their community grow in understanding and social action. They pointed to Oblate participation in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, a Catholic coalition which since 2016 has aimed to help Catholics engage with the Truth and Reconciliation process.
The Oblates also pointed to their first major apology.
“The Oblates were most involved in the residential schools, so it was incumbent upon us to apologize for our part. We led the way with our 1991 apology. We invite the broader church to join us,” the Lacombe Canada Oblates said. “We hope the whole Canadian church enters into this process with humility.”
The Oblates’ 1991 apology was offered by Rev. Doug Crosby, OMI, then-president of the Oblate Conference of Canada before some 15,000 to 20,000 Native peoples gathered at Lac St. Anne, Alberta for an annual pilgrimage, then run by the Oblates.
“(W)e wish to apologize for the part we played in the setting up and the maintaining of those schools,” Crosby said. “We apologize for the existence of the schools themselves, recognizing that the biggest abuse was not what happened in the schools, but that the schools themselves happened . . . that the primal bond inherent within families was violated as a matter of policy, that children were usurped from their natural communities, and that, implicitly and explicitly, these schools operated out of the premise that European languages, traditions, and religious practices were superior to native languages, traditions, and religious practices.”
“The residential schools were an attempt to assimilate aboriginal peoples and we played an important role in the unfolding of this design. For this we sincerely apologize,” he said.
The 1991 apology, which invoked the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus’ first expedition in 1492, accused Christian Europe of holding a “cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious superiority complex” that was “damaging” and “naïve.”
“We apologize for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious imperialism that was part of the mentality with which the peoples of Europe first met the aboriginal peoples and which consistently has lurked behind the way the Native peoples of Canada have been treated by civil governments and by the churches,” said Crosby.