Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
It is not “enough” for Pope Francis to express his sorrow following the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
He must apologize, said Crown-Indigenous Services Minister Carolyn Bennett.
The Catholic Pope has for years defied calls from both the Canadian government and the public to apologize for the central role his church played in running 60 per cent of Canada’s residential schools.
“Residential school survivors and those dealing with this need to hear the Pope apologize,” said Bennett during question period on Monday in response to a question from NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq.
“Our government continues to call on the Pope to apologize,” Bennett continued.”
“The Pope’s statement on Sunday doesn’t go far enough.”
Her comments came shortly before the House of Commons passed an NDP motion calling on the government to act more quickly to implement the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, and to put in place more resources for survivors of residential schools.
The motion is not legally binding.
Archaeological surveys using ground-penetrating radar at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School uncovered the remains of 215 children in unmarked burial sites nearly two weeks ago, prompting an outpouring of grief among Indigenous communities and urgings for the government to act.
The finding has sparked a nationwide reckoning over centuries of action by the Canadian government against Indigenous peoples and the continued injustices Indigenous people face to this day.
Residential schools were created by the federal government as part of a broader effort to strip Indigenous people of their cultures and identity. Children forced to attend were frequently subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse, and suffered neglect and malnutrition.
Hundreds, if not thousands, are believed to have died at the schools and work is underway in other Indigenous communities to search the sites of other residential schools for unmarked burial sites.
The federal government has issued a formal apology as have all the other churches involved in running the schools. Only the Catholic church has repeatedly defied calls to apologize, despite offering formal apologies for the “crimes” of the church in Ireland and its “grave sins” in South America.
Pope Francis on Sunday did not specifically mention Indigenous people as the victims of the church’s actions, and said only that he expressed “sorrow” at the discovery of the remains of the children.
“I follow with sorrow the news that arrives from Canada about the upsetting discovery of the remains of 215 children,” he said on Sunday.
“I join with the Catholic church in Canada in expressing closeness to the Canadian people traumatized by the shocking news,” he continued. ”This sad discovery increases the awareness of the sorrows and sufferings of the past.“
“May the political and religious authorities continue to collaborate with determination to shed light on this sad affair and to commit to a path of healing.”
Indigenous leaders have expressed disappointment and frustration over the pope’s refusal to apologize.
“It’s just part of the healing journey,” Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said Monday in Saskatoon.
“Why can’t the Pope contribute to that healing journey for survivors and their families?”
Cameron said the discovery in Kamloops has reopened wounds for many people in the 74 Saskatchewan First Nations he represents.
“We are all pained and saddened. We know that,” said Cameron. “Now it’s time to apologize.”
Cameron said a sincere apology from the Pope and a commitment to keep records of the church-run schools would help survivors and their families find healing.
The Saskatchewan chief said many of the people he represents don’t like using the term residential schools because it doesn’t grasp the horrific experience many had inside their walls.
“Too many survivors and their families, they were institutions of torture, abuse and death.”
Some 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forced to go to the schools, which operated for more than 120 years in Canada. More than 60 per cent of residential schools were run by the Catholic Church.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has urged the church to take responsibility for its role in residential schools. He also asked that it release records on the schools.
Trudeau personally asked the Pope in 2017 to consider an apology for the institution’s part in the government-sponsored, church-run schools for Indigenous children.
A delegation of First Nations leaders and residential school survivors met with former pope Benedict in 2009. He expressed his sorrow and “personal anguish” but never apologized.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report included a call for the Pope to issue an apology “for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children in Catholic-run residential schools.”
The commission urged that the apology be delivered in Canada within a year of the report, which was in 2015.
Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the role of top leaders in the Catholic Church is implicit in what happened when they refuse to acknowledge the schools.
“The reality is these things happened and happened under the auspice of the church,” Dumas said.
He said the recent lack of an apology was particularly hurtful given Pope Francis’ cultivated image based on humbleness and humility.
“It makes me more critical as to how the Bible says one thing, but the law of man dictates another direction,” Dumas said in Winnipeg. “It’s very problematic.”
Dumas, a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, was raised in Pukatawagan in remote northwestern Manitoba.
He said there were only whispers while he was growing up about what was happening at nearby residential schools, because there was fear about speaking out.
Now, he said, there’s no denying what happened.
The Pope’s continued refusal to recognize the harms that were done is an insult to Indigenous people, he said.
“A meaningful apology would help facilitate a path to healing.”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
— With files from The Canadian Press’s Kelly Geraldine Malone