Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
The Catholic church is showing a “lack of commitment” to face up to its role in the horrors of Canada’s residential school system, according to one former Canadian senator and a residential school survivor.
Senator Murray Sinclair’s testimony before a special parliamentary committee came as calls continue to grow for church officials to open their archives to survivors and formally apologize for the schools.
Scrutiny of the church’s inaction is mounting after the horrific discovery of the remains of 215 children in unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
“The fact that there are still church records that have not been revealed … is also a sad commentary of the lack of commitment by the Catholic church to allow us to investigate this further. We need to have that question looked at as well,” Sinclair told the committee.
Shortly before his testimony, residential school survivor Evelyn Korkmaz told journalists that the time for “crocodile tears” from governments is over, and the time has come to support Indigenous communities that have for years been pushing to explore the former school locations for unmarked burial sites.
As part of that, the Catholic church, which ran roughly 60 per cent of residential schools, must also recognize its role.
“The Catholic Church also needs to acknowledge and take ownership to repent and pay for their sins,” said Korkmaz at a press conference ahead of a House of Commons debate on an NDP motion urging the government to act.
Martin Reiher, an assistant deputy minister with the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations, suggested there’s no easy way to get those records from churches until they offer them up.
He said federal officials have had conversations with the churches involved in running the schools.
“As part of these discussions, they have all indicated around the table they are prepared to share the information in their archives,” he said.
“In terms of legal capacity to impose sharing, we do not have that authority.”
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.
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.
Victims forced to attend the schools suffered horrific physical, mental and sexual abuse.
But so far, the responses from Catholic church representatives have ranged from regional apologies to a complete lack of acknowledgement of the church’s role in the system.
Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed “sorrow” in a statement that described the discovery of the remains as “shocking.” The statement made no apology and did not acknowledge the Catholic church’s central role in the residential school system.
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.”
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.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) last week called on Pope Francis to apologize.
He has refused to do so, despite issuing formal apologies for the “crimes” of the Catholic church in Ireland and for its “grave sins” in Latin America.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on Wednesday said he believes the time has come for a papal apology, while Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said that it’s clear Indigenous people want an apology and that it’s up to Catholics to urge their church to do better.
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access the 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.