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Retired Calgary bishop: Canadian government must own 'primary' responsibility for abuses of Indigenous

Kamloops Kamloops Indian Residential School, Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada/ Bruce Raynor/Shutterstock

The retired bishop of Calgary this week said the Canadian government must shoulder its “primary” responsibility for past abuses in the country’s residential school system. He maintained that Catholic Church leaders must also “own our sinfulness” in the abuses.

“We have a right to less pompous posturing and more forthright action on the part of [the] federal government,” said Bishop Fred Henry in a June 7 letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Bishop Henry retired as bishop of Calgary in 2017.

The letter was reported by Bill Kauffmann in outlets of Canada’s Postmedia Network, and was later obtained by CNA.

“Primary responsibility must be owned by the federal government,” Henry said in response to the recent discovery of unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children at a former Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

On the weekend of May 22, the graves were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, with the use of ground-penetrating radar. It is unclear how the children died.

The Kamloops school was opened in 1890 and was run by Catholics before the Oblates of Mary Immaculate oversaw the school beginning in 1893. In 1969, the government took back control of the school until it closed in 1978.

Last week, Trudeau - a Catholic - said he was “deeply disappointed” at the lack of a formal apology by the Church for its role in the residential school abuses. He called on the Church to release all relevant records for the schools and said the government had “tools” to apply if the Church did not do so, according to the Associated Press.

In response, Bishop Henry said he was “disappointed” with Trudeau’s “unhelpful” and “posturing” comments.

“Your comments are not only unhelpful but must be considered posturing for political purposes and yet another blatant attempt at ongoing dissimulation,” the bishop told Trudeau.

He cited 2014 apologies of bishops from the province of Alberta to Indigenous communities, “for Catholic participation in government policies that resulted in children being separated from their families, and often suppressed Aboriginal culture and language at the Residential Schools."

Bishop Henry emphasized that while Catholics ran some of the residential schools, the government established them.

“Primary responsibility must be owned by the federal government,” he said.

Canada’s residential school system was established by the federal government beginning in the 1870s, with Catholics and members of Protestant denominations charged with running the schools. Children of First Nations and other Indigenous communities were placed in the schools as a form of forcible assimilation. The last remaining residential school closed in 1996.

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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.

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“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. 

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Other relevant Catholic institutions "should" release their records on the schools if they have not already done so, Collins added.

In his June 7 letter, Bishop Henry criticized “pompous posturing,” in an apparent reference to Trudeau’s comments.

The country’s bishops have issued statements following the discovery of the Indigenous children’s remains.

Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, president of the Canadian bishops’ conference, prayed for the deceased children and said that “Honouring the dignity of the lost little ones demands that the truth be brought to light,” in a May 31 statement. 

Bishop Joseph Nguyen of Kamloops on May 28 said he was “heartbroken and horrified” by the discovery, offering his “deepest sympathy to Chief Roseanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation and to all who are mourning this tragedy and unspeakable loss.” 

In a June 2 letter to First Nations governments and other Indigenous populations, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB of Vancouver promised “tangible actions” to support school survivors and the families of the deceased.

This article was updated on June 10 with new information.

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