A 2006 settlement between the Canadian government and the Assembly of First Nations called for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began its work in 2008 and issued its final report in 2015. The commission reported that Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to the residential schools, in order to strip them of family and cultural ties.
According to the commission, an estimated 4,100 to 6,000 children died as a result of neglect or abuse at the schools.
Bishop Henry quoted at length from the final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, arguing that according to the commission, the government bore “primary” responsibility for the poor treatment of children at the schools.
“The federal government never established an adequate set of standards and regulations to guarantee the health and safety of residential school students,” he said. “This failure occurred despite the fact that the government had the authority to establish those standards,” he said, quoting the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“The failure to establish and enforce adequate standards, coupled with the failure to adequately fund the schools, resulted in unnecessarily high residential school death rates,” he added.
“The most basic of questions about missing children—Who died? Why did they die? Where are they buried?—have never been addressed or comprehensively documented by the Canadian government,” he said, quoting the commission’s report.
Regarding the high death rates of Indigenous students at the schools, he quoted the report’s finding that “the federal government failed to take appropriate action to address a national health-care crisis in the residential schools and in the Aboriginal community in general.”
The government for decades did not provide the schools the adequate resources to care for students, the report stated.
“Students were housed in poorly built, poorly heated, poorly maintained, crowded, and often unsanitary facilities. Many of the schools lacked isolation rooms or infirmaries. Many lacked access to trained medical staff. It was not until the late 1950s that the federal government attempted to provide sufficient funding to ensure that student diets were nutritionally adequate,” Bishop Henry stated, quoting the report.
Further, the government “never adopted a national policy on the reporting of the physical and sexual abuse of students,” leaving children vulnerable to abuse and resulting in the dismissal of investigations, the report stated.
One of the calls of the commission’s 2015 report was for a papal 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.”
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Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto explained in a June 3 statement that a formal papal apology would involve an in-person papal visit to Canada, requiring significant logistical actions. Pope Francis has already encouraged the country’s bishops to lead on the process of reconciliation for the Church’s role in the school system, he said.
Pope Benedict XVI previously met with Canadian Indigenous leaders in 2009 at the Vatican, where according to Cardinal Collins he expressed his “sorrow and anguish” for the abuses in the schools.
Pope Francis last Sunday expressed sorrow over the discovery of the unmarked graves, but did not issue a formal apology.
“May Canada’s political and religious authorities continue to work together with determination to shed light on this sad event and humbly commit themselves to a path of reconciliation and healing,” the pope said at the June 6 Sunday Angelus at the Vatican.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic, in 2017 met with Pope Francis and raised the issue of the residential school system, inviting the pope to come to Canada. Last week, Trudeau said he was “deeply disappointed” at the lack of a formal apology by the Church, calling on the Church to release all relevant records for the schools and saying the government had “tools” to apply if the Church did not do so, according to the Associated Press.
Appearing on CBC on Sunday, Cardinal Collins called Trudeau’s remarks “extremely unhelpful” and “uninformed,” saying the Kamloops school’s records are available at the Royal British Columbia Museum. The school’s records were also given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.