Letter to the Prime Minister: Residential School Records

June 15, 2021

Right Hon. Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister of Canada
Prime Minister’s Office
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2
Via email:

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau:

We write to you today as representatives of World Press Freedom Canada (WPFC) with regard to an urgent issue of transparency highlighted by the tragic discovery of a mass burial site at Kamloops, B.C., containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children who attended a local residential school.

WPFC is a non-profit group that since 2008 has been advocating for press freedom in Canada and abroad, including reform of transparency legislation.

In our work over the years, we have heard frequently from Canada’s Indigenous organizations about their frustrations in obtaining government-held information about their communities and issues. The federal government in particular has been cited for deliberately withholding documentation required to correct historical injustices, including treaty abrogations. The Access to Information Act, for example, has repeatedly failed to deliver records these communities require to document chronic failures to provide basic health, housing and social benefits on reserves.

A large part of the tragedy at Kamloops, B.C., is that we do not know these children’s names, how they died and whether their caretakers were complicit in their deaths. Much of this information doubtless exists but has been kept hidden by the very institutions whose failures may be exposed by their release, that is, the churches and federal agencies responsible for creating and operating the residential school system. In other words, these institutions are in a clear conflict of interest.

Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people has been a monumental human-rights travesty, deemed a “cultural genocide” by Murray Sinclair and others. Compounding the injustice is the continued denial of the very documentation that could provide a historical accounting to the Indigenous communities who survived these gross violations of human rights.

WPFC believes Canadians are also owed a full accounting, and that journalists have a responsibility to tell the grim story as fully as possible. The federal government thus has a duty to open archives and filing cabinets not only to Indigenous communities, but to the public as well.

We call on your government to quickly remove obstacles barring the way to Indigenous records and documentation, whether they are controlled federally, provincially or privately. We ask that you use every administrative, legal and diplomatic tool, including tough measures that would compel the relevant church authorities to disclose all their documentation. Use of moral suasion is inadequate. Given that crimes may have been committed, full disclosure must be made mandatory.

We further call on your government to make public, or make publicly accessible, all such documents and records, after respecting privacy requirements and after an appropriate period of time for Indigenous groups to examine the releases. Such transparency is urgent not only for the 215 unnamed children in the Kamloops gravesite, but also to illuminate a broad range of injustices against Indigenous people across Canada. As journalists, we require those records to tell Canadians the whole unvarnished story.


Heather Bakken
President, World Press Freedom Canada

Dean Beeby
Director, World Press Freedom Canada

Ben Chin
Marc Miller