Prime Minister targets Catholic Church for not doing enough to make amends for role in residential schools

A classroom building of Kamloops Indian Residential School about 1950. (Photo - Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Library and Archives Canada - (The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

By Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

[Ottawa – CCN] – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chastised the Catholic Church in a press conference June 4, saying that as a Catholic he is “deeply” disappointed that years after he asked Pope Francis to apologize for the Church’s role in residential schools in Canada such an apology has yet to be issued.

However, as Canadian politicians and others continue to call on the Catholic Church to do more to make amends and apologize for the Church’s role in operating residential schools on behalf of the Canadian government in the past, a senior Canadian Catholic cardinal said the prime minister’s comments have not been helpful and are “ill-informed.”

Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins’ comments June 6 came on the same day that Pope Francis raised the issue in the Vatican.

“I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by this shocking news,” Pope Francis said in St. Peter’s Square.

But Pope Francis failed to do the one thing that Indigenous leaders in Canada and now increasingly Canadian politicians are demanding – formally and unequivocally apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church.

In Prime Minister Trudeau’s June 4 statements about the Catholic Church, he said other faith communities that were involved with residential schools have been more willing to officially and formally take responsibility. He called on Canadian Catholics, such as himself, to continue to press the Church to officially apologize.

And he implied that the federal government has “tools” that it can use if the Church does not make an official apology and agree to release more documents and information about its involvement with residential schools in Canada.

“We’re still seeing resistance from the Church,” he said during a press conference June 4 in which he continued to apologize for Canada’s past treatment of Indigenous Canadian children and his own government’s and past Canadian government’s treatment of Indigenous Canadians.

The discovery of the bodies of 215 children at a residential school site in Kamloops, B.C. at the end of May has sparked outrage across the country and has renewed calls for the Pope to formally and officially apologize for its role in running residential schools across Canada.

One of the recommendations made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) into residential schools was a demand for the Catholic Church to officially apologize for its role in Canada’s residential schools, calling for an apology from Pope Francis on Canadian soil.

Trudeau said that like other Canadian Catholics, he wants the Church to take more responsibility and do more.
“Many Catholics like myself over the course of the past many days wonder why the Catholic Church in Canada is silent, is not stepping up, is not showing … leadership,” he said.

Individual Catholic dioceses and religious order in Canada that have been involved in residential schools in the past have made a number of apologies over the years and the Church in Canada does emphasize the need for reconciliation with Canada’s First Peoples.

On June 2, 2021,  the Archbishop of Vancouver J. Michael Miller did pledge to turn over any documents asked for and also apologized for the impact of residential schools on Indigenous Canadians, but a formal apology from the Vatican on behalf of the Church as a whole has never been issued.

Cardinal Collins, who is archbishop of Toronto, made an apology during Mass June 6, but in an interview with the CBC he questioned the need for the Pope on behalf of the Church to make what he called a “dramatic” gesture.

“I don’t know whether some big or dramatic thing is the way forward,” Cardinal Collins told the CBC as he pushed back against the prime minister’s comments. “No one that I know of is trying to hide records.”

“I think those are extremely unhelpful remarks from Mr. Trudeau and uniformed,” Collins said.

Indigenous leaders in Canada have long demanded the Catholic Church turn over all documents that have anything to do with residential schools in Canada and not just documents the Church itself says are pertinent.

The Prime Minister has warned the Catholic Church that his government will take further legal action if it has too.

The political and moral firestorm that has been felt across the country since the discovery of 215 bodies at the site of residential school in Kamloops, B.C.,  has prompted special debates in Parliament in both the House of Commons and the Senate, where a special “day” to mark what happened at residential schools in Canada has been created.

A federal National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will be held on Sept. 30 every year from now on after both the House and Senate passed a motion to that effect.

Former Abegweit First Nation Chief and now Senator Brian Francis told the Senate that such a day is needed to make sure the experiences of residential school survivors are never forgotten.

“Most of us cannot begin to understand the abuse and trauma all endured, or the strength it has taken for some of them to come forward and relive it,” Francis said. “Without the courageous and persistent efforts of survivors, the shameful treatment of Indigenous people would not have been brought to light.”

As one of the Catholic organizations that were heavily involved in residential schools, — including the residential school at Kamloops from 1890 to 1969 – the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate apologized in 1991 for their role in operating residential schools.

In an “Indian Residential Schools and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate Q&A” on the Oblates’ website, the Oblates support a visit to Canada by the Pope to officially apologize on behalf of the Church.

“Oblates believe that such a visit would be a great blessing for Canada, and an important step in the healing journey of many Indigenous people, especially residential school survivors,” the statement on the Oblates’ website said.

“Oblates continue to hope and pray that such a visit happens soon, and that such an apology be delivered by the highest levels of the Canadian and worldwide church.”

In addition, the Oblates’ website addresses the matter of school records (Question #6): “The 1991 Oblate apology committed to ‘an effective process of disclosure vis-à-vis Residential Schools.’ Although complicated, because there are several categories of archival material, the Oblates 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.”

Statement from Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archdiocese of Toronto: LINK

Statement of Commitment and of Apology from Archbishop Michael Miller, Archdiocese of Vancouver: LINK

Statement of Apology and Commitment from Bishop Joseph Nguyen, Diocese of Kamloops, BC – LINK

Statement from the Archdiocese of Regina, Archbishop Donald Bolen – LINK

Statement from Bishop Mark Hagemoen, Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon – LINK

List of statements and apologies by Canadian Catholic dioceses and organizations about residential schools – LINK