Canadian bishops pledge reconciliation after indigenous children's remains discovered at Catholic-run school

St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Kamloops, Canada, in February 2015. Credit: Alan Levine via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Kamloops, Canada, in February 2015. Credit: Alan Levine via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Canadian bishops pledged to work towards healing and reconciliation with the country’s indigenous populations, after the remains of more than 200 indigenous children were discovered in unmarked graves at the site of a former Catholic residential school in late May.

“On behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), I express our deepest sorrow for the heartrending loss of the children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation,” Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, president of the bishops’ conference, stated on May 31. 

“We lift up prayers to the Lord for the children who have lost their lives and pledge our close accompaniment of Indigenous families and communities,” he said.

Gagnon said the recent discovery of the children’s remains at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, was “shocking.” He pressed for further investigations into what happened to the children. 

“Honouring the dignity of the lost little ones demands that the truth be brought to light,” he said. 

“This tragedy profoundly impacts Indigenous communities, with whom many people across this land and throughout the world now stand in solidarity,” said Gagnon.  

He promised that the country’s bishops would work for healing and reconciliation. 

“As we see ever more clearly the pain and suffering of the past, 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,” he said. 

Other bishops issued statements following the revelations of the unmarked graves, including the Bishop of Kamloops where the former residential school was located. 

Bishop Joseph Nguyen of Kamloops issued a statement on May 28 saying he was “heartbroken and horrified” by the discovery of the children’s remains. 

“I express my deepest sympathy to Chief Roseanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation and to all who are mourning this tragedy and unspeakable loss,” said Nguyen. “No words of sorrow could adequately describe this horrific discovery.” 

Nguyen said that he offered his “personal support, prayers and accompaniment to our First Nations community in Kamloops and beyond.” 

In Canada, indigenous populations are referred to as “First Nations.” There are 634 First Nation communities in Canada, with a population of more than 975,000 according to the 2016 census. 

Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver said he “filled with deep sadness at the troubling news,” in a statement published by the B.C. Catholic.

“The pain that such news causes reminds us of our ongoing need to bring light to every tragic situation that occurred in residential schools run by the Church,” he said. “The passage of time does not erase the suffering that touches the Indigenous communities affected, and we pledge to do whatever we can to heal that suffering.”

The remains of the children were discovered the weekend of May 22, with the use of ground-penetrating radar. It is unknown how the children died, or who they were. The deaths are believed to have been undocumented.

The Kamloops Industrial School, later renamed the Kamloops Indian Residential School, began operations in 1890. The school was administered by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1893 until 1969, when the Canadian government took control of the school again. At that point, the school building operated as a residence for First Nations children who were attending area day schools. The residence was closed in 1978. 

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At one point, the Kamloops school was the largest residential school in the country. 

Previously, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - a commission that lasted from 2008 to 2015, aimed at documenting the history and lasting impacts of the country’s residential schools - found that 51 children had died at the Kamloops Residential School. 

The commission said that an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 students died as a result of neglect or abuse in the country’s residential schools. The last federally-run residential school in Canada closed in 1996. 

According to the commission’s findings, the residential school system placed First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children in boarding schools and separated them from their families, in an effort to strip them of their cultures and force assimilation. 

In a statement released by Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc band on May 27, Chief Roseanne Casimir confirmed the discovery of the remains, saying the graves were “spoken about but never documented by the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” 

The graves were discovered due to a grant that funded the use of ground-penetrating radar. The site is still being examined. 

“Given the size of the school, with up to 500 students registered and attending at any one time, we understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond,” said Casimir. 

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“We wish to ensure that our community members, as well as all home communities for the children who attended are duly informed. This is the beginning but, given the nature of this news, we felt it important to share immediately. At this time we have more questions than answers. We look forward to providing updates as they become available,” Casimir said.

One of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action was an apology from the pope “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.” The apology should be “similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse,” the commission noted. 

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