Accountability for the Roman Catholic Church’s Role in the Residential School System: Urgent Actions Needed Immediately

By Carling Beninger

Trigger Warning: This article discusses the residential school system and the Roman Catholic Church. The National Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419.

In the 1880s, the Canadian federal government created the residential school system in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous children and destroy their Indigenous culture and traditions through cultural genocide. Residential schools were run by Christian churches, with the Roman Catholic Church operating 60% of the institutions. The last residential school closed in 1996.

Indigenous children who attended these institutions were forcibly taken from their families and communities and faced horrible living conditions, trauma, and abuse. Many Indigenous children were subjected to physical and sexual abuse. In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for Canada’s role in the residential school system and recognized that “the consequences of the Indian Residential Schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language.” In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), held from 2008-2015, released its final report that included 94 Calls to Action, which included several calls directed towards the churches. To date, only 10 of the TRC Calls to Action have been completed.

The Roman Catholic Church’s response to its role in the residential school system continues to be harmfully insufficient. TRC Call to Action 58 calls for the Pope to apologize, which has yet to occur. The Roman Catholic Church continues to withhold archival records that it was legally required to provide to the TRC. Additionally, Roman Catholic entities, comprised of 47 Catholic defendants, did not paid full compensation as was determined by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), a comprehensive response to the residential school legacy that included compensation to survivors, establishment of the TRC, and commemoration and healing initiatives.

In response to the recent announcement by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops of the uncovering of the remains of 215 children who attended the Kamloops Residential School, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) expressed its “deepest sorrow for the heartrending loss of the children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential schools.” The CCCB stated that “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,” without outlining any concrete actions.

Downplaying the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the residential school system, the CCCB has further stated that “[t]he Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the Residential Schools, nor was the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.” The CCCB’s response to the uncovering of the unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School is inadequate. It does not include any specific action, further undermining reconciliation efforts.

Here, I outline three urgent actions that need to be addressed by the Roman Catholic Church immediately as part of taking responsibility for its significant role in the residential school system. The three urgent actions are: 1) an apology from the Pope, 2) a statement by the CCCB outlining how they have engaged and will continued to engage with TRC’s Calls to Action 59, 60, and 61, and 3) payment of $21.3 million by the Roman Catholic entities to Indigenous healing programs that was not paid to the IRSSA. At the end of the article, I provide a letter template and contact information that can be used to call on the Pope and the CCCB to complete these urgent actions.

Urgent Action #1: The Roman Catholic Church must immediately complete the TRC’s Call to Action 58 that calls “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.”

Rick Alex of Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation and the co-chair of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS), recently stated that there needs to be action from the Pope in response to the uncovering of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School. He remarked “My Creator is asking their God why their disciples would do this to us…The Pope needs to answer this question. There is no more denying it. Now there is physical evidence from these unmarked graves.”

Despite numerous calls for the Pope to apologize over the years, he has not done so. In April 2009, Phil Fontaine, then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), and a delegation from the AFN travelled to Rome to meet with Pope Benedict XVI and members of the Canadian Catholic Church to discuss the residential school system’s legacy. In response, Pope Benedict XVI released a statement of regret, in which he “expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity.” Although this signaled the Pope’s recognition of some of the harms caused by the Roman Catholic Church, the statement was not an apology.

In 2015, after the release of TRC’s 94 Calls to Action, Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with Pope Francis to discuss the residential school system legacy and the 94 Calls to Action, but he did not ask the Pope to issue an apology. However, Prime Minister Trudeau did request an apology from Pope Francis in 2018. In response to Trudeau’s meeting with Pope Francis, the CCCB released a letter addressed to the Indigenous people of Canada: “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.”

In a press conference, Archbishop Gagnon gave insight into the Pope’s decision not to apologize: “His feeling is that reconciliation is most effectively achieved at the local level.” This lack of action by the Pope and the CCCB was very disappointing to many in Canada. The AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde stated “it would be a powerful act of healing and reconciliation for the pope to apologize, so we’re going to keep pushing on that request and that endeavor.”

There have been renewed calls for the Pope to apologize, including from Prime Minster Trudeau. However, instead of issuing an apology, Pope Francis tweeted this statement on June 6, 2021: “I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatised by shocking discovery of the remains of two hundred and fifteen children, pupils at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” He further stated that “[t]hese difficult times are a strong call for everyone to turn away from the colonial model and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.” Like Pope Benedict XVI’s statement of regret, Pope Francis does not outline any plans of action the Roman Catholic Church will take to advance meaningful reconciliation. Pope Francis needs to heed the calls of Indigenous people and allies and issue an apology.

Urgent Action #2: The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops must immediately release an update on how it has engaged with TRC Calls to Action 59, 60, and 61 related to education and healing initiatives, and outline future plans of action.

In addition to a papal apology, the Roman Catholic Church also must engage in meaningful reconciliation efforts. Therefore, the CCCB responses to TRC’s Calls to Action 59, 60, and 61 need to be clearer. TRC Call to Action 59 calls on the churches to educate their congregations on residential school and colonization history and why apologies are necessary. Call to Action 60 calls for the development of curriculum for church members on Indigenous spirituality. Additionally, TRC Call to Action 61 calls for permanent funding for Indigenous healing and community projects.

Angela White, xwulmuxw from Snuneymuxw and the Director of IRSSS, said the Roman Catholic Church needs to apologize, but that it also needs to follow up with ongoing dialogue: “We should have them be accountable to providing resources, whether it’s money or counselling, for the damage that they’ve done, so the healing can continue. We shouldn’t have to be figuring out how we’re going to heal, when they’re the ones that did the damage.” A press release by the CCCB outlining its response and planned actions to Calls to Action 59, 60, and 61 would lead to further accountability for its role in the residential school system.

Urgent Action #3: The Canadian Roman Catholic entities must, in consultation with Indigenous people, immediately pay $21.3 million that was not paid to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement to Indigenous healing funds.

The IRSSA required that the Roman Catholic entities to pay $79 million dollars in compensation in three parts: 1) $29 million in cash; 2) $25 million of “in kind” services paid over 10 years; and 3) $25 million from a fundraising campaign. In 2013, the federal government took the Roman Catholic entities to court for not paying $1.6 million of the $29 million cash compensation that was owed. During this court case, there was a “miscommunication” resulting in the courts releasing the Roman Catholic entities from the third part of its compensation.

To date, the Roman Catholic entities has not paid $21.3 million of the $25 million to healing programs. Bill Erasmus, National Chief of the Dene Nation, commented: “When you have a deal, it needs to be implemented, so the Church should be paying up. The church agreed there were harms. That’s why people were to be compensated.” Although the Roman Catholic entities are not legally required to pay the $21.3 million, they should, in consultation with Indigenous communities, pay this amount to Indigenous healing programs in order to advance reconciliation and take responsibility for its role in the residential school system.

Accountability Urgently Needed

In conclusion, the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the residential school legacy has been inadequate. The institution needs to be held accountable for its harmful role in the residential school system. If the Bishops of Canada are truly “seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future” there need to be concrete actions that includes an apology from the Pope; a public statement by the CCCB outlining how it has engaged with TRC Call’s to Action 59, 60 and 61, and future action plans; and the Roman Catholic entities should pay $21.3 million to Indigenous healing programs.

How You Can Take Action

I encourage you to email, tweet, or mail these urgent calls to action to Pope Francis and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. You can use this letter template below.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Pope’s response to the Roman Catholic’s role in the residential school system has been inadequate. I am calling on the Roman Catholic Church to complete these three urgent actions immediately in order to advance reconciliation in Canada.

Urgent Action #1: The Roman Catholic Church must immediately complete the TRC’s Call to Action 58 that calls “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. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

Urgent Action #2: The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops must immediately release an update on how it has engaged with TRC Calls to Action 59, 60, and 61 that are related to education and healing initiatives and outline future plans of action.

Urgent Action #3: The Canadian Roman Catholic entities must, in consultation with Indigenous people, immediately pay $21.3 million that was not paid to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement to Indigenous healing funds.

Contact Information

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
Email: Email needs to be sent using a web browser directly on this website: https://www.cccb.ca/about/contact/. Click on Contact next to General Inquiries.
Twitter: @CCCB_CECC
Mailing Address:
2500 Don Reid Drive
Ottawa (ON) K1H 2J2
Canada

Pope Francis
Email: info@salastampa.va
Twitter: @Pontifex
Mailing Address:
His Holiness, Pope Francis
Apostolic Palace
00120 Vatican City

I also encourage you to sign this petition calling on Pope Francis to apologize:

https://www.change.org/p/we-re-asking-pope-francis-to-apologize-to-indigenous-peoples-for-the-church-s-role-in-canada-s-residential-school-system-especially-in-light-of-the-215-children-recently-found-in-a-mass-grave-at-a-former-catholic-run-school-in-kamloops-british-columb?redirect=false.

Dr. Carling Beninger is a settler historian and faculty member in the History Department at Douglas College. A version of this post was presented at the Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting on June 1, 2020.

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4 thoughts on “Accountability for the Roman Catholic Church’s Role in the Residential School System: Urgent Actions Needed Immediately

  1. Miriam Mueller

    Thank you Dr. Beninger – I appreciate this summary and all the hyperlinks! Just fyi: There was one link that did not work (third paragraph “Additionally, Roman Catholic entities, comprised of 47 Catholic defendants, did not paid full compensation…”). Again – Thank you Dr. Beninger, I will share your article.

  2. DEb Lee

    You have clearly outlined how the Roman Catholic Church has shirked its responsibilities for the aftermath of their actions in the Indian residential schools over the many decades. This is strikingly familiar to their response to inquiries into abuses at orphanages such as Mt Cashel and the abuse that many children (of all races) experienced, when they attended the Catholic Churches across the country, in fact many countries. Thank you for outlining what needs to be done by the Roman Catholic Church to support the reconciliation and healing process… and how we can encourage them to do so. Let’s hope that thinking/ feeling Catholics will be at the forefront of encouraging their priests, bishops and pope to do the right thing.

  3. Sorrowful Catholic

    Important contextual information:

    (1) The statement by Archbishop Miller of the Archdiocese of Vancouver:
    “I am writing to express my deep apology and profound condolences to the families and communities that have been devastated by this horrific news”; “Each time new evidence of a tragedy is revealed, or another victim comes forward, countless wounds are reopened, and I know that you experience renewed suffering.”

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-archbishop-apologizes-indigenous-community-1.6051150

    (2) The statement by Bishop Nguyen of the Diocese of Kamloops:
    “The Diocese of Kamloops & the Archdiocese of Vancouver responded to the calls of the truth & reconciliation commission over 8 years ago by disclosing all our records on the school to the federal government.””…..I continue to offer my deepest sorrow and sincere apology to the families that have been devastated by this report”.

    https://dq5pwpg1q8ru0.cloudfront.net/2021/06/04/09/52/06/871db6c6-9fa0-4aff-9444-e5d83776873c/Bishop%20Joseph%20Nguyen_Pastoral%20Letter_June%203,%202021.pdf

    (3) The 2001 apology by the OMI Order:
    “We apologize for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious imperialism that
    was part of the mentality with which the peoples of Europe first met the aboriginal peoples and which
    consistently has lurked behind the way the Native peoples of Canada have been treated by civil
    governments and by the churches”.

    http://caid.ca/MisOblMarImmApo2001.pdf

    (4) Compensation paid by the OMI Order:

    “the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate did offer an apology in 1991 and later paid out money in lawsuits and contributed to the $3 billion in compensation given to 28,000 claimants who were residential school survivors”.

    https://www.kamloopsthisweek.com/news/religious-order-that-ran-kamloops-indian-residential-school-reaches-out-to-tk-emlups-1.24325143

    (5) The OMI Order transparency:
    Father Ken Thorson said the records from the Kamloops Indian Residential School are with the Royal BC Museum, noting the Victoria museum had been in contact with the Secwépemc Museum at Tk’emlups regarding school records before the May 27 announcement regarding the remains of the children being found.

    https://www.kamloopsthisweek.com/news/religious-order-that-ran-kamloops-indian-residential-school-reaches-out-to-tk-emlups-1.24325143

  4. Carling Beninger

    The “Sorrowful Catholic’s” comment above highlights the recent apologies by the Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller and Bishop Nguyen of the Diocese of Kamloops, and some of the reconciliation efforts the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) have engaged with. It is encouraging to these reconciliation efforts; however, my blog post was directed to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Pope, and the Roman Catholic entities that were part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). In response to the “Sorrowful Catholic’s” 4th source, I want to emphasize that the OMI were one of the Roman Catholic entities that did not pay the remaining $21.3 million owed to the IRRSA (see Urgent Action #3).

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