Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the discovery “very sad and disturbing” in a tweet.
The conference said on June 10 that it has been planning for two years a trip to the Vatican with a delegation of Indigenous leaders, “to meet with the Holy Father to foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing.” Indigenous leaders are seeking a formal papal apology for the Church's role in the residential school system, which was one of the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto has said that a formal papal apology would entail a personal papal visit to Canada, a project which would require significant logistical work.
Other Canadian bishops have recently issued apologies for the Church’s role in the residential school system, including Cardinal Collins, Archbishop Marcel Damphousse of Ottawa, and Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver. In 2014, bishops of the province of Alberta apologized to Indigenous communities.
Bishop Fred Henry, the retired bishop of Calgary, said in a June 7 letter to Prime Minister Trudeau that while Catholic leaders must “own our sinfulness” in the abuses, the federal government must shoulder its “primary” responsibility for the schools.
He cited findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the federal government failed to adequately fund and equip the schools, and failed to establish proper health standards and regulations for cemeteries.
“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,” Bishop Henry said, quoting the commission’s report.
One of the researchers involved in the commission’s report, Dr. Scott Hamilton, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, said that more work is needed to adequately document the location and scope of cemeteries at residential schools, in an interview with the B.C. Catholic.
The Kamloops discovery “didn’t surprise me, sadly enough,” he said in the interview. “But what surprised me in the years since I was last involved in this file was that there was lots of talk, lots of ‘we shalls’ in 2015. And as an outsider looking in, I don’t detect a lot of substantive action.”
In his 44-page report released after the discovery at Kamloops, Hamilton noted that Indigenous children suffered and died from communicable diseases at much higher rates than the general population in the 19th and early 20th centuries, he wrote, noting the poor conditions at “crowded, often unsanitary, and poorly constructed residential schools.”
At a time when many immigrants and workers were moving into regions with large Indigenous populations, disease spread rapidly and the Indigenous peoples had “limited resistance to infectious disease,” he wrote.
Furthermore, “public health and cemetery regulations were comparatively undeveloped” as provincial and local governments “were either not yet established or were in their infancy,” he noted of that time period. Thus, most residential school graveyards “were established informally, and have left little in the way of formal documentation.” Deaths at schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were probably under-reported, especially in “emergency situations during disease outbreaks.”
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Even in the cases of documented cemeteries, “some graves may lie unrecognized after the decay and disappearance of wood grave markers and enclosing graveyard fences,” he wrote. The federal government “appears to have been slow to develop a formal policy governing the burial of students who died at the schools,” he wrote.
A government directive from 1958 showed that the Indian Affairs department “was prepared to authorize only minimum funeral expenditures, and would only pay for transporting students to their home reserves if the cost of transportation was less than the cost of burying the student where they died,” he noted.
“This is consistent with practice throughout the system’s history; namely to keep burial costs low and oppose sending the bodies of deceased students back to their home community,” he wrote.
“Consistent with the lack of policy regarding burial of deceased residential school students, no plan appears to have existed regarding maintenance of cemeteries after school closure. Consequently, the current condition of school cemeteries varies widely,” he wrote.