Calls for Pope Francis to apologise to Canada's Indigenous peoples over Residential Schools

There are renewed calls for Pope Francis to issue a formal apology on behalf of the Catholic Church to Canada’s Indigenous peoples today, following the confirmation of a mass grave at Kamloops Indian Residential School – a Catholic state school.

Last week, ground-penetrating radar was used to confirm the location of the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, who were buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation described the discovery as “an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented”.

Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) was established in 1890 on the traditional territory of the Secwepemc people in the British Columbia region of Canada. Hundreds of Secwépemc and other First Nations children attended the school, with enrolment peaking in the early 1950s at 500 students.

When attendance became mandatory in the 1920s, First Nations’ children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in KIRS, with their parents under threat of prison if they refused. Students lived at the school from September to June, and were only allowed to see their families during Christmas and Easter visits. KIRS was in operation until 1969, when it was taken over by the Canadian Government from the Catholic Church to be used as a day school. It closed in 1978.

A papal apology was one of more than 90 recommendations issued by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Catholic Church’s role in running Indian residential schools was part of the Canadian Government’s policy of forced assimilation that resulted in the oppression of generations of Indigenous children. But the church’s treatment of Indigenous children entrusted to their care fell abysmally short of Christian standards – a fact well documented by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Canada’s TRC was conducted from 2007 to 2015, and cost the nation’s government an estimated $72 million. More than 6500 witnesses across the country were interviewed and seven national events were held to engage the Canadian public, educate people about the history and legacy of the residential school system, and share and honour the experiences of former students and their families.

In 2015, when the TRC handed down their report, a papal apology was one of more than 90 recommendations issued.

In May 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed up on a recommendation by inviting the pontiff to travel to Canada to say sorry to the thousands of people who had been placed in residential Catholic schools.

However, the global Catholic leader shunned calls to apologise one year later in March 2018, with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issuing a letter saying they had raised the matter with Pope Francis but said “he felt he could not personally respond”.

In May of the same year, Canada’s House of Commons passed a historic motion – garnering support across party lines – calling on Pope Francis to apologise for the physical, sexual and emotional abuse suffered by the thousands of children forced to attend the schools.

“My creator is asking their god why their disciples would do this to us. The Pope must answer this question.” – Alex of Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation and co-chair of IRSSS

Now, with the most recent gruesome discovery at KIRS, those calls have only grown louder.

“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.

While Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations were all involved in running residential schools in Canada, the Catholic Church was responsible for operating up to 60 per cent of the total. It is the only denomination of the five that has not issued a formal apology from its international office.

The regional Catholic Bishops have done so, though.

“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.

“As we see ever more clearly the pain and suffering of the past, the Bishops of Canada pledge to continue walking side by side with Indigenous Peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future. We lift up prayers to the Lord for the children who have lost their lives and pledge our close accompaniment of Indigenous families and communities.”