Nowadays, it is easy to be tempted to turn the page, to say that all these things happened long ago and we should look to the future. For God’s sake, no! We can never move forward without remembering the past; we do not progress without an honest and unclouded memory. – Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 249
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report on the legacy of Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous peoples. This system of education remained in operation for over a century (from approximately 1876 to the final school closure in 1996) and left generations broken by the experience. The report convincingly argues that the residential school system was an integral part of a larger government initiative that amounted to an attempt at “cultural genocide,” in that its goal was the eradication of Indigenous cultures. The Catholic Church was responsible for the operation of the majority of the schools, with a large number, including some of the most notorious, run specifically by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
The Indigenous children in these schools, who were often referred to by numbers assigned upon enrolment rather than by name, suffered conditions that were far worse than those in schools for non-Indigenous children during those times, thanks in large part to great inequalities in government funding. They experienced chronic malnourishment to the point that persistent hunger became a source of collective trauma that is still felt today. To add to their suffering, the children were often forced to work half-days (under the euphemism of “vocational training”) to help maintain the schools or to grow food.
The schools were plagued by physical and sexual abuse and a culture of unloving, rigorous discipline. St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario, which was under the direction of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns of the Cross, is a well-known example. It was the subject of a haunting 2018 CBC News report “The Horrors of St. Anne’s” and plays a central role in Edmund Metatawabin’s 2014 memoir, Up Ghost River. It is notable for having housed a homemade, hand-cranked “electric chair” that was used to discipline children, and for a Cree nun (herself a product of the residential school system) who punished children with upset stomachs by forcing them to eat their own vomit.
Apart from the hunger and abuse, the residential schools also inflicted great social and cultural damage. Unlike schools for non-Indigenous children, their purpose was to separate children from their families, their communities, and especially their culture. Children were often forced to attend these schools against the wishes and instincts of their families and communities. Threatened with punishment for speaking their own language or participating in Indigenous cultural activities, they were made to engage in rigorous religious training.
The overriding goal of the system, to which the religious groups running the schools gladly adhered, was to stop the transmission of Indigenous culture and create good, “civilized,” Christian Canadians. What it did was create a legacy of psychological ruin. It inflicted, in miniature and on children specifically, many of the cruelties of North American colonialism as a whole. Edmund Metatawabin writes, “The policy was universal, or at least the same across North America. Kill the Indian to Save the Man. Turned out when you killed the Indian, you just killed the Indian.”
The terrible legacy of the residential schools entered the public consciousness of Canadians during the early 1990s. Since then, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the United Church of Canada have all issued formal apologies for the treatment of students in the schools for which they were responsible. Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology on behalf of Canadians in 2008. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate offered an extensive, but qualified, apology in 1991. There has been no “official” apology from the Catholic Church as a whole, although in 2009, during a meeting with a delegation led by the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, Pope Benedict XVI “expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church.”
Here is where Pope Francis enters the story. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, along with their painstakingly researched report (the 500+ page Executive Summary of which is available here) on the history of the residential school system, made 94 Calls to Action directed at furthering both justice and reconciliation. Call to Action 58 reads as follows:
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. 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. (7)
The 2010 apology referred to here is the one issued by Pope Benedict XVI in his pastoral letter of March 19, 2010. It followed the publication of the final report of the Irish Government’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in May 2009, which dealt largely with the legacy of Ireland’s Church-run industrial schools. The industrial schools had problems similar to Canada’s residential schools and caused similar trauma, though the latter also had the purpose of extinguishing Indigenous cultures.
On May 29, 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Pope Francis for a private meeting, during which he said that a papal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system would help with the process of healing and reconciliation. He further invited the pope to visit Canada to deliver the apology. The general mood in Canada was one of optimism that the pope would eventually accept the invitation.
Canadians, and especially the Indigenous peoples of Canada, were soon to be disappointed. In a letter dated March 27, 2018, addressed to the Indigenous peoples of Canada, the President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), Bishop Lionel Gendron wrote:
The Catholic Bishops of Canada have been in dialogue with the Pope and the Holy See concerning the legacy of suffering you have experienced. 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. At the same time, sharing your pain, he has encouraged the Bishops to continue to engage in an intensive pastoral work of reconciliation, healing and solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples and to collaborate in concrete projects aimed at improving the condition of the First Peoples.
This response did not satisfy the expectations of many, to say the least, and so the next month a motion was introduced in Canada’s House of Commons to invite Pope Francis to Canada to issue an apology. Shortly before the motion was introduced, the CCCB issued a defensive statement conveying some “urgent information” to provide context regarding the Church and the residential schools. The document stressed the “decentralized structure” of the Church, noting that “Each diocese and institute [or religious order] is corporately and legally responsible for its own actions. The Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the Residential Schools, nor was the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops…” The CCCB intervention was unsuccessful, and did not stop the motion from passing on May 1 with a vote of 269 to 10. Since then, the issue has remained unresolved.
I have to admit, when I heard in 2018 that Pope Francis would not offer a personal apology for the residential schools, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I still had doubts about whether an apology was required. Back in 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission first released their report and the 94 Calls to Action, my attitude was very different from what it is today. I felt the report and the controversy surrounding it were unfair to both the Canadian government and the Church. While I knew the abuse and suffering had been real, I thought the use of the term “cultural genocide” was unwarranted and hyperbolic, and that the demand for an apology from the pope was too bold—even offensive. Surely, I reasoned, many of the Catholics who worked in those schools did not intend to do harm. There may have been cases of abuse, but that shouldn’t erase the value of the good work that was done. Canada in those years could be a rough place. Even in ordinary public schools—including Catholic public schools—discipline was often harsh. I thought we should look at what happened in its historical context, like Pope Francis said later in 2018 regarding the historical treatment of Indigenous people in general (as recorded by Catholic News Agency):
A historic event is interpreted with the hermeneutic of the time period in which it took place, not as a hermeneutic of today passed on. For example, the example of indigenous people, that there were so many injustices, so much brutality, but it cannot be interpreted with the hermeneutic of today [now] that we have another conscience.
Those who operated and worked in the residential schools could not see things from the perspective we have today. This being the case, I felt that even if we can’t dismiss the more egregious abuses that occurred, it would be unjust to condemn the residential school system as a whole.
However, after reading the Executive Summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, seeking out further information, and listening to the stories of survivors like Edmund Metatawabin, my viewpoint has changed. I know now that I was minimizing real suffering because I had not taken the time to listen and learn. Also, I was neglecting the fact that we have a moral responsibility to examine the systems we belong to and from which we benefit. The Church has been slowly waking up to the idea that individual morality is not everything; one can be a good and moral person in a limited sense, but nevertheless contribute to and uphold systems that perpetuate grave evils.
Through our sins of omission—and our failure to look around us and take a critical view of the systems we are part of—we can cause great damage. I grant that this viewpoint derives from a relatively new understanding of history and our new ‘conscience,’ but even if we interpret historical injustice through a hermeneutic of the time period, this can only reduce the moral culpability of the individuals involved; it does not change the objective gravity of the large-scale injustice. The individual instances of terrible abuse that happened in the residential schools must of course be condemned, but we must also grapple with the fact that the Church took part in an effort to erase a culture and break apart family structures. Those who participated in it may have done so with the intention of saving souls, but that does not mean their actions did not add up to a great institutional sin.
I find it hard to understand the defensiveness of the CCCB. While it may be true that the Church is decentralized in an administrative sense, it is still, and always has been, a single body united with and under the pope. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis took responsibility for the trauma inflicted by the Irish industrial schools, even though these schools were often run by groups like the Christian Brothers or the Sisters of Mercy. In Bolivia, in 2015, Pope Francis apologized “not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” Why is it that in the case of the residential schools, the Church should emphasize its decentralized aspects, and pretend as if it is merely a loose collection of autonomous dioceses and institutes?
I don’t know what the CCCB’s dialogue with Pope Francis involved. I don’t know how much the Holy Father really learned of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. I just hope that he will, at some point, reconsider the call to offer a personal apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada. A visit to Canada, and an apology on behalf of the Church, would create new possibilities for reconciliation. It would also provide the Church in Canada with a new foundation upon which to build a relationship of true fraternity with Indigenous peoples, even if we can never erase the destructive paternalism of the past.
Metatawabin, Edmund and Alexandra Shimo. Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History. Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014.
Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School, Saskatchewan, ca. 1885. See Wikimedia Commons. Caption: “Indigenous parents camped outside of the gates of the school to visit their children as they were forbidden by law to remove their children from the school. This photograph appeared in the 1895 annual report of the Department of Indian Affairs.”