The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate had significant responsibility for operating residential schools for Canada’s First Nations and other indigenous people. With the rediscovery of graves at these school grounds and renewed focus on the role of the schools in advancing government policies of forced assimilation, the Oblates are again apologizing for their historical involvement and have pledged to do more to help identify the remains of any children who died there.


“We were wrong. We should have investigated what was said. Our deafness contributed to the suffering that many have experienced and to the anger that many are expressing,” said a Q&A on the website of the Lacombe Canada Oblates, responding to the question of why claims about graves were not taken seriously.


The Canadian government established the residential school system beginning in the 1870s, as a means of forcibly assimilating indigenous children. Protestant and Catholic entities ran them, with Catholic groups responsible for over 70 of some 130 residential schools. The Oblates said they ran the majority of the Catholic schools, 48 in total.



The last federally-run school closed in 1996. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body established to report on the history of the residential schools, said the system was part of a policy of “cultural genocide” aimed to eliminate indigenous cultures and communities.


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Children at the schools also suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, neglect, and a lack of resources to prevent or address disease outbreaks.


Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which evaluated the history of the schools, has estimated that 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of disease, injury, neglect, or abuse over the decades.


The initial announcement of grave discoveries drew distraught reaction from indigenous communities and renewed apologies from Catholic leaders.


Several churches burned down in suspicious fires, including churches that served indigenous Catholics, while many more suffered vandalism, some of which explicitly referenced the grave discoveries.  Indigenous leaders said that if the attacks were motivated by the discovery of the graves they were counterproductive and interfered with efforts at finding the truth.

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Some 215 unmarked graves were found at the former grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, while 751 unmarked graves were found at the former grounds of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, both run by the Oblates. The Kamloops school was at one point the largest residential school in the system and was run by the Oblates from 1890 to 1969.


On June 30, Lower Kootenay First Nation leaders announced the discovery of 182 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former St. Eugene’s residential school near Cranbrook, British Columbia. The school, founded in 1880, was first run by the Catholic Diocese of Victoria, then the Missionaries of the Company of Mary took control in 1907. It was run by the Oblates from 1957-1959, before passing to government control.



The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report indicated that only 51 children died at Kamloops. The Lacombe Canada Oblates said that at this point “there is not a clear explanation” for the difference in numbers The Oblates said they would continue to work with the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation and through the curator of its archives, the Royal British Columbia Museum to help understand “this distressing discrepancy.”


“With the residential schools we administered, we commit ourselves to giving the support we can in the identification of possible burial sites and the names of the children,” the Oblates said.


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 document adequately the location and scope of cemeteries at residential schools.


The remains interred at these cemeteries on or near former school grounds are not necessarily all residential students, but also may include staff and their children, as well as nuns and priests, Hamilton told the B.C. Catholic. Some locales served as community cemeteries for nearby residents, including local schoolchildren.


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 in his 44-page report released after the discovery at Kamloops. Government officials aimed to pay only the bare minimum for the cost of burials and rarely paid to return the bodies of deceased children to their home communities. Some deaths went unreported because the institutions were overwhelmed in an epidemic situation, Hamilton believes.


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. These vulnerabilities were worsened by the poor conditions at “crowded, often unsanitary, and poorly constructed residential schools.”


As late as 1945, the death rate among indigenous children at the schools was as almost five times the death rate of other children the same age. This dropped to twice the average by the mid-20th century, in part due to the arrival of effective antibiotics and other improved medical care.


The Truth and Reconciliation report noted that in the early twentieth century there was at least one suggestion to address the rate of disease involved closing the residential schools and moving to a day school model on reservations. The move had support from some government officials and the Protestant communities, but then-Indian Affairs minister Frank Oliver would not move forward with the plan without the support of all the Christian communities, and Catholic support was lacking.


The commission said government, ecclesial, and school officials knew of the failures and poor health.


"If the question is, 'who knew what when?' the clear answer is: 'Everyone in authority at any point in the system's history'," the commission said.


In 2014 the Oblates’ then-superior general offered a “renewed apology,” committing the religious institute to “an effective process of disclosure” regarding residential schools. Facing a “complicated” archival situation, the Oblates said they have “worked diligently to live up to their obligations to make their archived material available.”


“They believe they have done so in good faith and are prepared to do more.”


On July 5, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation said it welcomed the Oblates’ efforts to expedite access to residential school records, which include codices, photographs, and staff files.


Previously the Oblates provided over 40,000 documents to the center.


On June 23 the Sisters of St. Ann, which was also involved in operating some residential schools, reached an agreement improving access to their records for the Royal British Columbia Museum and for the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.


The Lacombe Canada Oblates said they met their compensation obligations required by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. They are exploring other ways to support the Truth and Reconciliation Process.


“Oblates will continue to accompany Indigenous communities across Canada in supportive ministries on the ground,” the Oblates said. Retreat centers will offer educational events on indigenous justice to help their community grow in understanding and social action. They pointed to Oblate participation in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, a Catholic coalition which since 2016 has aimed to help Catholics engage with the Truth and Reconciliation process.


The Oblates also pointed to their first major apology.


“The Oblates were most involved in the residential schools, so it was incumbent upon us to apologize for our part. We led the way with our 1991 apology. We invite the broader church to join us,” the Lacombe Canada Oblates said. “We hope the whole Canadian church enters into this process with humility.”


The Oblates’ 1991 apology was offered by Rev. Doug Crosby, OMI, then-president of the Oblate Conference of Canada before some 15,000 to 20,000 Native peoples gathered at Lac St. Anne, Alberta for an annual pilgrimage, then run by the Oblates.


“(W)e wish to apologize for the part we played in the setting up and the maintaining of those schools,” Crosby said. “We apologize for the existence of the schools themselves, recognizing that the biggest abuse was not what happened in the schools, but that the schools themselves happened . . . that the primal bond inherent within families was violated as a matter of policy, that children were usurped from their natural communities, and that, implicitly and explicitly, these schools operated out of the premise that European languages, traditions, and religious practices were superior to native languages, traditions, and religious practices.”


“The residential schools were an attempt to assimilate aboriginal peoples and we played an important role in the unfolding of this design. For this we sincerely apologize,” he said.


The 1991 apology, which invoked the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus’ first expedition in 1492, accused Christian Europe of holding a “cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious superiority complex” that was “damaging” and “naïve.”  


“We apologize for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious imperialism that was part of the mentality with which the peoples of Europe first met the aboriginal peoples and which consistently has lurked behind the way the Native peoples of Canada have been treated by civil governments and by the churches,” said Crosby.