The involvement of the Catholic Church
About 16 out of 70 Canadian dioceses have been associated with residential schools, in addition to about forty of a hundred or so religious communities in Canada.
The Canadian Bishops' Conference acknowledged in a November 1993 brief for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People that "the various types of abuse experienced in some residential schools have led us to a profound examination of conscience in the Church."
Since the 1990s, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Canada and orders such as the Jesuits offered apology statements such as this one on the bishops' official website.
The response also included the establishment of a $30 million national pledge made by Canadian Bishops in September 2021.
Similarly, the Holy See has increasingly come to terms with this chapter of the Church’s history in Canada.
Pope John Paul II visited in 1984 and 1987. On both occasions, he met indigenous people, exalting their culture and the renewal brought to them by Christianity.
Benedict XVI met with Phil Fontaine, Great Chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Canada, at the end of the general audience on Apr. 29, 2009.
He "recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples." Referring to residential schools, Benedict XVI expressed "his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church, and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity."
An early whistleblower and a recent warning
At the turn of the 20th century, Peter Henderson Bryce, a public health official and physician, was the first to report about unsanitary conditions in residential schools in Canada. He gathered all the information he could and then, in 1907, published his findings — according to which about a quarter of the indigenous children in residential schools had died of tuberculosis.
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Bryce also pointed to the wider question of discrimination, noting that health funds for average citizens of Ottawa were about three times higher than those for First Nations peoples.
Government policies, in other words, had caused the deaths of many indigenous children.
Following attempts by government officials to silence him, Bryce published, at his expense, a small booklet on the issue, titled The Story of a National Crime.
Writing about “myth versus evidence”, Mark DeWolf noted in a 2018 essay — published by public policy think tank FCPP — that "cultural repression, abuse of all kinds, forceful incarceration and even avoidable deaths did happen, and a system that should have done much more to avoid these things should be justly condemned."
He concluded that the residential schools system was bad and “a deeply flawed attempt to accomplish two main objectives: to give native children education and training that would help them survive economically and socially in a white man's world, and to eradicate those aspects of native culture that would hold them back from achieving those goals.”
At the same time, pointing to low attendance numbers and other aspects of the system, DeWolf warned of making the residential schools “a scapegoat for 200 years of land appropriation, cultural invasion, deprivation, marginalization, and demoralization.”