'Disgrace': Indigenous leaders blast Catholic Church for silence on residential schools

WATCH: Calls grow to find all children lost at residential schools

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

Indigenous communities across Canada are renewing calls for the Roman Catholic Church to apologize for its role in residential schools that forcibly removed children from their homes — stripping them of their culture, language and identity.

On Friday, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) called on Pope Francis to address the atrocities that happened at residential schools, days after the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“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.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School, once the largest residential school in Canada with about 500 students at its peak, was operated by the Catholic Church from 1893 to 1969. The federal government took it over and ran it as a day school for almost a decade before it was closed in 1977.

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Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist and Presbyterian churches were the major denominations involved in the administration of the residential school system, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).

But the Catholic Church was responsible for operating up to 60 per cent of residential schools in Canada.

The Catholic Church is also the only one that hasn’t made a formal apology.

“Virtually every church was involved … but they have issued formal apologies and taken ownership of what they did,” Michael Coren, an Anglican priest in Ontario said. “The Roman Catholic Church in Canada has made statements, but the archbishop and cardinals can’t do anything without Rome giving permission.”

Coren said there is a need for a heartfelt apology from the Catholic Church in order to to help the healing process of residential school survivors.

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

“On behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), I express our deepest sorrow for the heartrending loss of the children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation,” Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.

Prior to 1945, the Kamloops Indian Residential School was within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

The Bishop of the Diocese of Kamloops, Joseph Nguyen, issued a statement Friday, saying he was “heartbroken” and “horrified” by the news and offered his “deepest sympathy,” but it stopped short of offering an apology.

An apology from the Catholic Church for its role in the residential school system is also one of the calls to action from the TRC.

“We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools,” the call to action report reads.

According to the final TRC report, “the Roman Catholic Church in Canada does not have a single spokesperson with authority to represent all of its many dioceses and distinct religious orders. The issuing of apologies or statements of regret was left up to each of them individually. The result has been a patchwork of apologies or statements of regret that few survivors or church members may even know exist.”

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Pamela Palmater, a professor and the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, said the Catholic Church is directly responsible for the many atrocities that happened in Canada. She said it is a “disgrace” that there’s been no apology.

“It seems to run counter to any kind of religious philosophy of any background, that you would not accept responsibility for something you are responsible for,” she said. “Instead what you see from the Catholic Church, and some others, is not sharing documents, not engaging in full disclosure, not accepting responsibility.”

Despite many residential school survivors asking for an apology to help with their healing process, Palmater said there hasn’t even been a bare minimum one.

Sheila North, the former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief, said denial is an act of genocide, and the refusal of the Catholic Church to admit blame is part of it.

She added that many survivors are no longer seeking apologies at this point, “as they feel empty.”

“I think that whether they (the Catholic Church) decides to take the blame for it or not, it does not matter because it is still part of who they are and what they have done,” North said.

In 2008, the federal government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, issued a formal apology for the damage done by the residential school system. And in 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally asked Pope Francis to apologize during a visit to the Vatican.

But the Pope did not apologize. Instead, a representative from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishop said while the Pope took the matter seriously, he still decided not to apologize.

“The Holy Father is aware of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he takes seriously. As far as call to action #58 is concerned, after carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the bishops of Canada, he felt that he could not personally respond,” the statement read.

The other churches that operated the remainder of the residential schools have all issued apologies.

The United Church did so in 1998, the Presbyterian Church in 1994 and the Anglican Church in 1993.

In 2018, Pope Francis issued a sweeping apology for the “crimes” of the Catholic Church in Ireland, saying church officials regularly didn’t respond with compassion to the many cases of abuse children and women suffered over the years.

The apology came after a judicial commission of investigation published a 2,865-page report into a network of “mother and baby homes” that inflicted abuse on single mothers and their babies during the 19th and 20th centuries in Ireland. An estimated 9,000 children died in these institutions, according to the report.

Read more:
Pope Francis apologizes for Catholic Church’s past ‘crimes’ in Ireland

The same year, Pope Francis told Chilean victims of clerical sexual abuse, He said he was “part of the problem” and apologized for “grave errors” in the way the Catholic Church handled sex abuse cases in Chile.

The apologies came after massive public pressure to do so, Coren explained, adding that he hopes Canada will continue to push the Catholic Church to own acceptance for its involvement in residential school atrocities.

“The Pope is progressive on some issues like refugees and economic justice and climate change. But on this one, on apologizing, the church is simply finding it difficult to do,” he said.

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

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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