Ottawa archbishop apologizes for Church’s role in Canada’s residential schools

Kamloops Memorial in tribute to 215 Indigenous children at the site of the former Kamloops residential school. | meandering images/Shutterstock

The archbishop of Ottawa-Cornwall on June 17 apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in administering the country’s residential school system, and requested a formal apology by Pope Francis.

“As we celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day, I extend my sincere apology for the involvement of the Catholic Church in the residential school system, and I pray for healing as the Church in Canada walks the path of reconciliation with the Indigenous people in our community,” said Archbishop Marcel Damphousse of Ottawa-Cornwall, in a video posted on YouTube on June 17. 

In Canada, National Indigenous Peoples Day is celebrated on June 21.  

“As a member of the Catholic Church, and as a bishop, I am so sorry. I know I am not alone in my sorrow and contrition,” said Damphousse. “I add my voice to those who are asking the Holy Father for an apology to Indigenous peoples of Canada.” 

In addition to Damphousse, the Archbishop of Vancouver recently suggested that Pope Francis should formally apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system.

"I know that the apology that is being asked for from the TRC is that the pope come in person to issue an apology," Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver said, as reported by CBC on June 8. Miller was referring to the call for a papal apology, made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission operated from 2008 until 2015, and issued a lengthy report on the history of the residential school system and abuses committed in the system. 

"If someone asked me, do I think the pope should apologize, I would say yes," Archbishop Miller said.

Archbishop Damphousse said that he was at “a loss for words” to describe how he felt following the recent discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. 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 Kamloops Industrial School, later renamed the Kamloops Indian Residential School, was established by the federal government and began operations in 1890. At one point, it was the largest residential school in the country. 

The residential school system was set up by the federal government beginning in the 1870s, placing First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children in boarding schools and separating them from their families. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the school system aimed to strip the children of their cultural and familial ties, and force assimilation. The schools were run by Catholics and members of Protestant denominations.

A lay Catholic principal oversaw the Kamloops school until it was administered by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate beginning in 1893. In 1969, the Canadian government took control of the school, which at that point operated as a residence for First Nations children who were attending area day schools. The residence was closed in 1978. 

Previously, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that 51 children had died at the Kamloops school. The commission said that an estimated 4,100 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. 

In 2017, Pope Francis met with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who invited the pope to visit Canada and make a formal apology for the Church’s role in the residential school system. Trudeau recently said he was “disappointed” at the lack of a papal apology. Pope Francis has expressed his sadness for the recent discovery in Kamloops, and offered prayers for the children who died in the residential schools, but has not formally apologized. 

Leaders of the Assembly of First Nations and the Métis National Council are planning a visit to the Vatican this fall, alongside the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), to request a formal papal apology.

Bishop Joesph Nguyen of Kamloops told CFJC Today, regarding a papal apology, that it “is not only an apology for the Pope and the church. We’d like to have a long-lasting reconciliation. The Pope would like to listen directly from Indigenous people.”

Archbishop Damphousse said he has sought to better understand the suffering of Indigenous children in the residential schools.

“I have been reading more and listening to better understand the reality of the residential schools, and the impact they had on Indigenous peoples,” Archbishop Damphousse said. 

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Damphousse said that the reports of abuses in the schools, alleged by survivors in recent weeks and by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission several years ago, were “shameful.” He added that “as a Church we failed, not only to be authentic witnesses to the goodness of Jesus Christ, but we sinned against our brothers and sisters in our care.” 

“Words cannot undo the hurt or return the deceased children to their families,” he said.

The archbishop said that he has “reached out for help” from area organizations, “to learn how to best support our local Indigenous community.” 

“I listened to requests for concrete actions we can take, including participating and promoting listening encounters with Indigenous people in our archdiocese, working with Indigenous peoples in providing education for clergy and parishioners, facilitated by members of the Indigenous peoples,” he said. 

Other actions, he said, would be announced in the future.

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