'Unquestionably Wrong': Catholic Archbishop Apologizes for Church's Role in Residential Schools

Pope Francis has remained silent. But as a Cree Anglican Archdeacon says, churches can and should share their buildings and money with Indigenous communities.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
June 3, 2021, 5:51pm
tribute for 215 children at KamloIndianJ. Mic
Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller has promised to make residential school archives and records available. Photos by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg (left) and Vancouver Catholic Archdiocese (right)

Vancouver Catholic Archdiocese has apologized for the Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system after the undocumented remains of 215 children, some as young as 3, were found buried under a former Catholic-run residential school.

“I am writing to express my deep apology and profound condolences to the families and communities that have been devastated by this horrific news,” Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller said on Wednesday. “The Church was unquestionably wrong in implementing a government colonialist policy which resulted in devastation for children, families, and communities.”

Advertisement

Miller has committed to sharing archives and records from residential schools and said the Archdiocese of Vancouver “strongly” urges “all other Catholic and government organizations to do the same.”

The archdiocese also pledged to provide mental health, technological, professional supports to Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and other affected Nations as the investigation into the burial site continues—and to provide similar resources for future investigations when they arise within the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s historic boundaries. 

The apology comes as the rest of the Catholic Church takes zero responsibility for residential schools.

Residential schools were funded by the Canadian government and operated by churches, including Anglican, Presbyterian, and Catholic, to forcibly assimilate an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. More than half of all schools were Catholic-run. 

Anglicans, Presbyterians, and the United Church have all apologized for their roles in the residential school system, something the Catholic Church refuses to do—even after Trudeau personally asked Pope Francis to do so in 2017. 

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed their “deepest sorrow for the heartrending loss” on Monday, but didn’t acknowledge the Church’s complicity. 

Findings published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) five years ago detailed how students were systematically stripped away from their families and communities and forced to attend residential schools, where they were often punished for speaking their Indigenous languages or expressing their identities. Sweeping abuses were common. The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. 

Dozens more sites like the one discovered by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc are expected to surface going forward, since an estimated 4,000 to 15,000 children, many undocumented, were killed at residential schools nationwide, amounting to genocide.

Advertisement

“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,” said Miller, who also apologized in 2013.

Meanwhile, lots of Canadians are reaching out to religious groups, asking what they can do going forward. One Catholic woman told CBC News she started a Facebook group with others who are considering ways to pressure the Catholic Church to hold itself accountable. 

Ven. Travis Enright, Archdeacon for Indigenous Ministries with the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, said he’s been hearing from the “white, middle-class hipster community” a lot. 

“I’ve never seen so many calls and so many emails,” he said.

Apologies need to be met with concrete action, said Enright, who is Cree himself and the son and relative of several residential school survivors.

“As followers of Jesus Christ, what are we doing? And why do we perpetuate this?” Enright said. “We’re supposed to be for the poor, not building our society on their bones.”

Enright, who combines Anglican worship with Cree spirituality, said churches across the board have to start creating places where people can acknowledge the pain caused—on Indigenous terms. On top of that, powerful institutions like the federal government and religious organizations need to start implementing the TRC’s calls to action, rather than simply paying lip service to them. 

Advertisement

“Traditional, colonial ways of being are about talking a lot and doing every little,” Enright said.

Churches have the resources they can and should share with Indigenous communities, Enright said, pointing to the time when he opened up St. Faith’s Anglican Church to a group of Indigenous women who needed a space to sew more than 100 red ribbon skirts ahead of a ceremony and walk commemorating missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

“Let the communities find ways to heal. They have the skills and the sense for reconciliation, but churches have the instruments for reconciliation, we have the buildings and the money.”

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.

Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7. More resources available here.