Calgary diocese promises compensation to residential school survivors

Kamloops memorial Memorial to victims of Kamloops residential school, British Columbia/ meandering images/Shutterstock

The Calgary diocese announced on Friday it will contribute money to a compensation fund for survivors of local residential schools.

“The Diocese of Calgary is committed to providing a monetary contribution to a forthcoming local/regional financial appeal,” said the diocese in a July 16 letter published on its website. The fund will benefit survivors of 25 residential schools in the province of Alberta.

The diocese said it will announce the amount of the compensation in September. This gesture “expresses the commitment of the Diocese to the ongoing work of justice and healing in our country with the Indigenous Peoples and their communities,” the diocese explained. 

“Bishop William McGrattan has been in consultation with other bishops and diocesan collaborators to be in solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples and their leaders on the next steps in supporting survivors and in addressing the intergenerational harm caused by the Residential Schools,” said the statement. 

The residential school system was established by the federal government beginning in the 1870s, as a means to assimilate Indigenous children. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by a settlement between the government and First Nations leaders, investigated the history of the residential schools and released its report in 2015; the commission detailed abuses that occurred at the schools, and called the schools part of a policy of “cultural genocide.” 

Four of Alberta’s 25 residential schools were located in the territory of the Diocese of Calgary; however, they were operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and not the diocese itself. The Oblates say they operated a “majority” of the 70 Catholic-run residential schools in Canada.

The four Catholic-run schools were St. Joseph’s Residential School in Cluny, which operated from 1900-1968; St. Mary’s Residential School in Cardston, which operated from 1898-1988; Sacred Heart Residential School in Brocket, which operated from 1887-1961; and St. Joseph’s Industrial School, East of Okotoks, which operated from 1884-1922.

Of the 25 schools in Alberta, 16 were operated by either a Catholic diocese or Catholic religious order. 

Marilyn North Peigan, who works with the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program, a government program to support survivors of the schools, told Canada’s Global News that monetary compensation was long overdue. 

“The survivors have been asking for this kind of compensation since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report came out,” said North Peigan. 

“I think it’s important to recognize that there is a broken relationship between the church and the residential school survivors,” said North Peigen. 

“Money isn’t going to do everything, but it’s a show that we can start building a new relationship. We are damaged as well. A lot of it has to go into healing and into wellness programs,” she said. 

The recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of several former Catholic-run residential schools has sparked calls for a reckoning over the Church’s role in the school system.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported on institutional abuses in the schools, where Indigenous children were separated from their parents and families and sent to the schools to be stripped of family and cultural ties. Rates of deaths due to disease were high in the schools, which were notoriously underfunded.

“Child neglect was institutionalized, and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abusers,” the commission stated.

Some have echoed the calls of the commission for the pope to issue a formal apology for the Church’s role in the system.

The retired bishop of Calgary, Bishop Fred Henry, in June said that while Church leaders must “own our sinfulness” in the residential school abuses, the Canadian federal government bears the “primary” responsibility for the schools.

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“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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