Canadian Catholic bishops 'apologize unequivocally' for residential schools

OTTAWA — Catholic bishops in Canada are apologizing "unequivocally" to Indigenous Peoples for the suffering endured in residential schools, just as Pope Francis prepares to meet with Indigenous leaders at the Vatican later this fall.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed to the wording of the one-page statement during a meeting Thursday. It says along with the church entities that were directly involved in running residential schools the bishops express "our profound remorse and apologize unequivocally."

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"We acknowledge the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual," it says.

"We also sorrowfully acknowledge the historical and ongoing trauma and the legacy of suffering and challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples that continue to this day."

They are also promising to provide documents that may help "memorialize" students buried in unmarked graves, work on getting the Pope to visit Canada, and raise money to help fund initiatives recommended by local Indigenous partners.

The church has been heavily criticized for neglecting to provide all documents on the schools requested by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and for raising less than one-sixth of a $25-million fund promised for reconciliation and healing as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement more than a decade ago.

The bishops' apology is the latest expression of remorse from the Canadian arms of the Catholic Church but still falls short of the TRC call to action for the Pope himself to apologize in Canada.

National Indigenous leaders, elders, youth and survivors of residential schools are to travel to Rome in mid-December for four days of meetings, which some hope will be the final precursor to that apology.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald has not yet reacted to the latest statement from the bishops. In August, she said the AFN was still to decide if it would send anyone to the December meeting at the Vatican, but that she wouldn't be going herself.

"We've been very public that we want the Pope here in Canada to offer that apology on Canadian soil," she said.

The 2015 TRC report said the apology should happen within one year and be similar to the 2010 apology by Pope Benedict XVI to victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland.

Less than a month after the calls to action were made, Pope Francis travelled to Bolivia where he apologized "for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America."

In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appealed directly to the Pope for an apology during a visit to the Vatican but months later Pope Francis sent word through Canadian bishops that he "could not personally respond" to the call.

Pressure for the apology in Canada mounted again last spring, as hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered on the sites of former residential schools, believed to hold the remains of children who died at the schools.

There were also calls for release of records held the by the church that could help identify the children who were buried, often without their families ever being told of their deaths.

More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools for more than a century when the Canadian government enacted a policy to assimilate Indigenous children, breaking them from their culture, families and languages.

The Catholic and Anglican churches ran most of the schools for the government, where children were subjected to rampant emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, said Friday's statement would be "welcome for those who believe the primary objective is a papal apology."

But she said the statement lacks "key details" on truth and accountability and leaves "a gap between these comforting words and real action."

Because the Catholic church's involvement in running the schools stemmed from multiple entities, there is no one point of accountability, which is troublesome, said Turpel-Lafond.

"The scattershot approach to this to date has imperilled our capacity to determine what happened to the missing children, and the unmarked burials, as well as left an incomplete historical record of what happened," she said.

The statement also does not admit the church hasn't lived up to its financial obligations under the settlement agreement, she added.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2021.

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