Bishops pledge to work with Indigenous communities to make amends for the past after residential school apology

Children's shoes placed by community members on the steps of Sts. Paul Co-Cathedral to honour the children who died at residential schools. (Photo submitted by St. Paul Co-Cathedral)

By Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

[Ottawa] – An apology on behalf the entire Catholic Church in Canada and a commitment to spend millions of dollars on reconciliation projects is a step towards further making amends for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system, the bishop of Calgary told the Canadian Catholic News in an interview.

“There had been some confusion about apologies in the general public and even among Catholics, so the bishops wanted to make a clear statement so we can work together on a path towards reconciliation,” Calgary Bishop William McGrattan said in an interview after Canada’s bishops concluded their annual plenary assembly on Sept. 24.

Bishop McGrattan, who was elected as vice-president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) at the plenary, said it was important for the bishops to make a statement on behalf of the church as a whole so that it is clear to Canadians and Catholics that the church wants to be a partner with Indigenous Canadians going forward.

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At the end of the CCCB’s annual plenary, Canada’s Catholic bishops released a statement in which the bishops “unequivocally” apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system and raised the possibility of a visit by the Pope to Canada as part of the “healing journey” between Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the Church.

The statement released by the CCCB on Sept. 24 said the bishops “acknowledge the suffering experienced in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.”

“Many Catholic religious communities and dioceses participated in this system, which led to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality, failing to respect the rich history, traditions and wisdom of Indigenous Peoples,” the statement released by the CCCB said. “We acknowledge the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual. 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.”

The statement from the CCCB comes after the church had been criticized since unmarked graves of children were discovered at a former Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, B.C., in May for not doing enough to make amends for the church’s role in the residential school system and there have been renewed calls for the Pope to visit Canada to issue a formal apology on behalf of the Church on Canadian soil.

A delegation of Indigenous leaders is scheduled to meet with the Pope in the Vatican in December to address the Church’s role in Canada’s residential schools and Indigenous leaders have been demanding a papal visit to Canada to apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system that was established by the federal government but the actual schools were operated by religious organizations including the Catholic Church.

“Having heard the requests to engage Pope Francis in this reconciliation process, a delegation of Indigenous survivors, Elders/knowledge keepers, and youth will meet with the Holy Father in Rome in December 2021,” the CCCB’s Sept. 24 statement said.

“Pope Francis will encounter and listen to the Indigenous participants, so as to discern how he can support our common desire to renew relationships and walk together along the path of hope in the coming years,” the CCCB said. “We pledge to work with the Holy See and our Indigenous partners on the possibility of a pastoral visit by the Pope to Canada as part of this healing journey.”

While the Assembly of First Nations, the largest Indigenous organization in Canada, has largely welcomed the statement from the CCCB, AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald has reiterated that Indigenous Canadians want a papal apology for the church’s role in Canada’s residential schools to be given on Canadian soil by the Pope as was demanded in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.
Canada’s bishops followed up its statement of apology of Sept. 24 by announcing on Sept. 27 that they are also committing up to $30-million over the next five years as part of what the CCCB said is “a nation-wide collective financial commitment to support healing and reconciliation initiatives for residential school survivors, their families, and their communities.”

“The Bishops of Canada have been guided by the principle that we should not speak about Indigenous People without speaking with them,” said Bishop McGrattan.

“To that end, the ongoing conversations with local leadership will be instrumental in discerning the programs that are most deserving of support. There is no single step that can eliminate the pain felt by residential school survivors, but by listening, seeking relationships, and working collaboratively where we are able, we hope to learn how to walk together in a new path of hope.”