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‘Virtually Every Church’ Complicit in Canadian School ‘Catastrophe,’ but Only One Has Yet to Apologize

Left: New classroom building of Kamloops Indian Residential School, Kamloops, British Columbia, circa 1950. CC by 2.0 Right: Young First Nations boy in Aitken, British Columbia, circa 1910.

A painful chapter in Canadian history resurfaced last week with news that the remains of 215 children were found at Kamloops, a former Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

The disturbing headlines also brought renewed calls for apologies and accountability, especially from the Roman Catholic Church. Although that isn’t the only religious institution connected to these schools, it’s the only one that hasn’t formally apologized for its role.

Schools Like Kamloops Amounted to ‘Cultural Genocide’

Between 1883 and 1996, almost 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to boarding schools. These institutions, run by government and religious authorities, forced assimilation by banning Indigenous languages and traditions. Neglect and abuse were reportedly rampant, and contagious illnesses, fires and accidents led to high death rates among students.

According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called the residential schools a form of “cultural genocide,” about 4,000 children died. Most deaths went undocumented. Kamloops, the largest school in the system, was closed in 1978.

In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized for the atrocities and established a massive class-action settlement for survivors. After human remains were discovered at Kamloops—the youngest estimated to be age 3—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that it’s “a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history. … We are here for you.”

A memorial consisting of hundreds of children’s shoes has emerged on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. And Canada’s House of Commons is considering a bill to establish a new national holiday honoring children who died at residential schools.

Apology Would Help Heal ‘Open Wound,’ Advocates Say

The Catholic Church operated about 70% of the residential schools, with the United Church of Canada and the Anglican and Presbyterian churches running the rest. Of those, only the Catholic Church has yet to issue an apology.

In 1991, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops formally apologized for the church’s role, but the Vatican has been silent. Trudeau personally appealed to Pope Francis in 2018, and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission also requested a papal apology.

Last week, Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller pledged that the church will “do whatever we can to heal that suffering” among Canada’s Indigenous communities.

Advocates for those communities, however, say healing requires an apology. The Rev. Michael Coren, an Anglican priest and broadcaster, says the damage has left an “open wound” but apologies “at least help begin some sort of closure.” Although “virtually every church in Canada was involved in this catastrophe,” he says, the Catholic Church “will not make a commitment to its direct involvement in these atrocities because, I would argue, it’s terrified of the financial and legal consequences.”

Cohen says despite the Pope’s progressive stances, the church’s “traditional elements” and financial advisers are “terrified of prolonged compensation battles.” He adds, “That’s tragic not just for the victims of the residential schools but for the message of Christianity.”

Ongoing conversation also is key, says Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. “We shouldn’t have to be figuring out how we’re going to heal, when they’re the ones that did the damage,” she says.