Canada’s Catholic bishops have responsibility to apologize for residential schools: minister

Click to play video: '‘Shameful’ Catholic Church hasn’t apologized over burial sites discovered at B.C. residential school, Indigenous Services minister says' ‘Shameful’ Catholic Church hasn’t apologized over burial sites discovered at B.C. residential school, Indigenous Services minister says
Indigenous Services minister Marc Miller called it 'shameful' that the Catholic Church hasn't apologized over the discovery of remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. – Jun 2, 2021

Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised. 

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says Canadian Catholic bishops bear a responsibility to apologize for the role of their church and their predecessors in the residential school system.

His comments came as the federal government announced it will be making $27 million of previously announced money available on an “urgent basis” to Indigenous communities grappling with the discovery of remains of 215 children in unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops residential school.

“I’m not Catholic, I spent long enough in a Catholic institution to have a view on things,” Miller said when asked in a press conference whether he believes an apology from the Catholic Church is needed.

“I think it is shameful they haven’t done it…. Certainly my Catholic friends that I speak to believe it should be done. There is a responsibility that lies squarely on the shoulder of the council of bishops of Canada.”

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Read more: Deaths of residential school children ‘the fault of Canada,’ Trudeau tells debate

Rev. J. Michael Miller, the current shepherd of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, apologized to all First Nations governments, Indigenous communities, families and citizens for the Church’s involvement in a letter released Wednesday.

“The Church was unquestionably wrong in implementing a government colonialist policy which resulted in devastation for children, families and communities,” he said.

Miller vowed to be “transparent with our archives and records regarding all residential schools,” offered mental health support and counselling for family members and others connected to the school, as well as assistance with technological and professional support to help the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and “other affected Nations in whatever way they choose to honour, retrieve and remember their deceased children.”

The chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc said on Thursday that the community had located the remains of 215 children in unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, through the use of ground-penetrating radar.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett told the House of Commons during an emergency debate on Tuesday evening that “we are all profoundly shaken by this horrifying discovery.”

Bennett reiterated her horror in the press conference with Miller on Wednesday, and said the federal government will be there to support Indigenous communities on how they want to move forward.

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“Communities know what they need and we will be there to support their way forward,” she said.

Bennett also faced questions about whether she believes the Catholic pope should apologize for the church’s role in the residential school system, as there are growing calls for him to do.

She said it’s clear that many Indigenous people “want to hear the pope apologize.”

“It’s up to Catholics across this country to ask their church to do better including not only whatever they have in terms of records that have not been shared, but also what we’ve been hearing over the weekend of the apology from the pope being very much front and centre,” she said.

Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal, who is Metis, described the discovery as “traumatic” and added it will be important for the federal government to listen to the needs of Indigenous communities rather than decide unilaterally how to move forward in the wake of the discovery.

Read more: Residential schools — What we know about their history and how many died

Residential schools were boarding schools set up by the Canadian federal government and administered by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist and Presbyterian churches as part of a federal policy with the goal of stripping Indigenous children of their culture and identities.

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Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada, described the intent of the schools as follows:

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

A total of 139 residential schools across the country have been identified in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. A map of the schools can be found online.

Read more: ‘They were monsters that did this’ — Kamloops residential school survivor speaks out

The Catholic Church ran roughly 60 per cent of the schools but is the only one that has not made a formal apology to the victims, who suffered horrific physical, mental and sexual abuse at the schools.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) on Friday called on Pope Francis to apologize.

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“My creator is asking their god why their disciples would do this to us. The Pope must answer this question. There is no more denying it, now there is physical evidence from these unmarked graves,” Rick Alex of Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation and co-chair of IRSSS said in a statement.

Archbishop Brian Dunn of the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth in Nova Scotia issued a statement that acknowledged the participation of Catholics in the residential school system and called news of the discovery of the 215 remains “absolutely heartbreaking.”

“I am conscious that this tragedy has a significant impact on all Indigenous communities, especially those here in Nova Scotia,” he said in the statement.

“As Archbishop I want to offer my prayers for these children, their families, and their communities. Acknowledging and bringing to light this dark chapter of our Catholic and Canadian history is difficult but necessary in order to be able to do and be better,” Dunn continued.

“I continue to be committed to all who have been mistreated and hurt by the residential school experience, in which Church members participated knowingly or unknowingly.”

Global News emailed the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) on Tuesday asking about whether the church plans to apologize.

Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed “sorrow” in a statement that described the discovery of the remains as “shocking.”

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The statement made no apology and did not acknowledge the Catholic Church’s central role in the residential school system.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

—With files from Global’s Katie Dangerfield, Leslie Young, Amy Judd and Emerald Bensadoun.

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