In the weeks following the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school site in Kamloops, British Columbia, Toronto mom Mateja noticed her daughter had covered up a shelf of religious items in her bedroom.
The 14-year-old had placed a sheet of blank paper over a cubby containing a cross, a rosary, a photo of the Virgin Mary, and a prayer book.
“I said, ‘You know, if you don’t like that, you are not forced to keep that there,’” said Mateja, who does not want her last name used to protect her daughter’s privacy.
Like her daughter, Mateja, 48, is struggling with her association with the church in light of the discovery of the graves under the Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School. She said the church’s response has been inadequate and she will no longer attend mass.
“I’m done,” said Mateja, a lifelong Catholic. “They have one job to do and that’s to be good people—people that would protect, people that you count on... And, you know, there are pedophiles, rapists and murderers. I can’t stand for that anymore.”
Mateja is not alone in feeling betrayed by the Catholic Church in light of the unearthing of multiple gravesites and a renewed scrutiny of the institution’s role in trying to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children. Other Catholics told VICE World News they feel ashamed of the church’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and its failure to take ownership of those atrocities. Some, like Mateja, are considering leaving the church altogether. On Monday, two Catholic churches on Indigenous land in B.C. burned to the ground in what police are calling suspicious fires.
Canada’s residential schools, more than half of which were run by the Catholic Church, ripped an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children from their homes and carried out widespread physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and punishment for expressing Indigenous languages and identity. The schools operated from the 1880s to the late 1990s. The deaths of the children found in Kamloops are undocumented, according to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. Indigenous communities are working to identify children found in similar graves at residential schools in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. On Wednesday, Cowessess First Nation said it had discovered the remains of at least 751 Indigenous people, mostly children, in unmarked graves under Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, Canada, which closed in 1997.
In response to the Kamloops discovery, Pope Francis said, “The sad discovery further raises awareness of the pains and sufferings of the past. May the political and religious authorities of Canada continue to collaborate with determination to shed light on that sad story and humbly commit themselves to a path of reconciliation and healing.”
Despite repeated calls, he has yet to issue a fulsome apology on behalf of the church, though some Canadian Catholic bishops have done so.
“They should be on their knees begging for forgiveness.”
A petition signed by a number of current and former clergy members calls for an apology from the pope, the church to pay the remaining $20 million of a settlement to be put towards reconciliation programs for residential school survivors, and the burial costs of the children. A statement from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada also called for the church to provide complete records surrounding the residential schools.
The Sisters of St. Ann, the order of Catholic nuns that ran Kamloops Indian Residential School, announced it is committing to sharing its records on the schools with the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, as well as Royal B.C. Museum and the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of B.C.
“They should be on their knees begging for forgiveness,” said Mateja, of the church.
“They should be donating funds. They should be doing everything in their power to help people figure out who everybody was, who were these kids, their families. They should be doing everything in their power to help.”
A group of Canadian lawyers have asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the Vatican for crimes against humanity in relation to residential schools. The ICC previously told VICE World News it had opened a file, meaning it was considering the complaint.
William Woof, a retired business ethics instructor who is Catholic, said if the church refused to cooperate with the International Criminal Court, he would leave.
“I would quit the church if the Vatican decided to protect any of their priests or people who were involved in teaching in these schools from an ICC investigation. That would be a deal breaker for me,” Woof said.
Father Brian Shea, a priest at Toronto’s Saint Pius X Catholic Parish, said he’s discussed the Kamloops discovery in his last three homilies and has heard from a couple of parishioners who are grappling with their feelings about the church. One parishioner is setting up a group to “reflect on the situation,” he said.
“On top on top of that, you’ve got the whole sexual abuse story,” Shea said. “You wouldn’t be surprised that people would say, ‘I’m out of here.’”
Shea said he thinks an apology from Pope Francis would be “helpful,” but that the pope first needs to be invited to Canada by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. He also said he thinks the church could look to fulfill the calls to action laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) as a starting point.
The TRC recommendations, released in 2015, calls for the church to apologize for its role in the residential school system; develop education strategies to ensure congregations learn about the church’s role in residential schools and colonization; educate student clergy surrounding residential schools and respect Indigenous spirituality; and fund healing and reconciliation projects.
As of 2020, the church had not completed any of these calls to action, according to a report from the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank.
VICE World News reached out to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for comment but has not yet received a response. A section about residential schools on the organization’s website says, “The Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the Residential Schools, nor was the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.” It also says in 1991 Canadian Catholic Bishops issued an apology for the “pain, suffering and alienation that so many experienced” at residential schools.
Sonia Siezien, 28, grew up going to a Catholic school in the rural community of Beaverlodge, Alberta. Siezien, whose mother is a residential school survivor and father is white, said she and her siblings “stuck out like a sore thumb” in the town of 2,000. She said she was subjected to racist bullying in school, including having her head thrown into a locker while being called a slur and being surrounded by a group of classmates who told her “how much they hate Indians.”
“They didn’t have to apologize to me,” she said.
By the time she was 14, Siezien stopped attending Sunday mass. She said she was fed up with feeling like she was being taken advantage of, from donating money and food to giving her time as an altar server.
“I follow my Native grandmother's teachings on the Creator,” Siezien said. But she also said she doesn’t think a person needs to have religion to be a good person, despite what the church teaches.
She believes the residential school sites should be transformed into something to honour the children who died.
“I like the idea of sacred land, the land that these people, these children are being found on, to be honoured and turned into something that is beautiful, beneficial, helpful for the community... Because it has been a place of death and anger for so long. It needs to be wiped clean of that.”
With files from Anya Zoledziowski.
Follow Manisha Krishnan 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.