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A week and a half after 215 childrens’ remains were found on the former grounds of a Catholic-run Indian Residential School in British Columbia, many are disappointed by a lack of ownership and apology from the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

On May 27, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation located in B.C.'s southern interior announced preliminary findings of an unmarked gravesite on its property, the former grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, holding the remains of at least 215 children—some as young as three years old. 

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On June 5, after a meeting with two Canadian Cardinals the day before, Pope Francis spoke to a congregation in his typical Sunday morning address at Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City. The Pope expressed “sorrow” “about the shocking discovery,” according to a translation of his prepared statement, though he offered no official apology for the role the Catholic Church played in the displacement of an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children.

Between the late 1800s and 1996, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families to attend boarding schools where they were often physically and sexually abused, according to testimony from residential school survivors taken by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 2007 and 2015. The Catholic Church was tasked with running more than 150 residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada. 

“This sad discovery further heightens awareness of the pain and sufferings of the past,” Pope Francis said on Sunday. “May the political and religious authorities in Canada continue to work together with determination to shed light on this sad event and humbly commit themselves to a path of healing and reconciliation.”

But Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders alike have said the statement falls short of culpability. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a recorded interview on Monday, said that “we have all heard that what communities and families want and need is an apology,” and that he has spoken to Canada’s archdiocese about the church working with Indigenous communities to address the harm caused by residential schools. 

Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said that, in order to apologize for something, you must first know what you’re being held accountable for. 

“While we seek an apology for this instance, until we do a complete fact finding of every instance, every life that was murdered, an apology is going to be incomplete,” Sharp told Native News Online. “Any apology given in the absence of that continues to fuel all across Indian Country.”

Maka Black Elk (Oglala Lakota Nation) works as the Executive Director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, S.D., a former Indian boarding school. He told Native News Online that an apology, while important, only matters to the people who hear it when it's uttered.

Over a decade ago, Pope Benedict XVI met with Indigenous leaders in Canada and expressed his sorrow and anguish at the harm caused by residential schools. But that meeting only included Canada's Assembly of First Nations, Indigenous elders and residential school survivors, according to local reports at the time.

“What really matters is, there needs to be ongoing action,” Black Elk said. “I think the church and Pope Francis reasonably understand that. It’s really about sustaining an effort and committing to particular actions.”

He said it’s unfortunate that the church hasn’t yet apologized—because it’s the easiest thing to do—but they also need to take action.

Despite the Pope’s failed attempt at an apology, other Catholic bodies have taken responsibility for their roles during the residential school era.

The congregation responsible for Kamloops Indian Residential School where the unmarked mass grave of 215 Native students were found, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, issued an apology.

“The Missionary Oblates were administrators and teachers at the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” wrote Father Ken Thorson. “Through our own ongoing reflection, and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we are growing into a deepening awareness of the damage caused to Indigenous peoples, the enduring harm caused by colonization and the part our religious order played in it through the residential school system.”

Thorson told Native News Online that Missionary Oblates is working with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation to catalogue extensive written documents previously held by the church, similar to diaries, containing day-to-day happenings at the Kamloops school. Those records may help put names to the vast majority of the buried children whose deaths were not recorded.

“It continues to pain me that my community participated in a system that has brought so much pain to so many people,” Thorson said. “I hope that the churches and religious communities are involved, along with the government who owned the schools, (to) continue to work with the Indigneous peoples who were affected to bring the truth and reconciliation that we all say we want. Right now that effort is primarily directed to the search for information.”

On Wednesday, Canada’s Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced that the federal government will soon begin distributing $27 million in pre-announced funding to assist Indigenous communities in locating and memorializing children who died at residential schools.

As communities around the world continue to process the news from Kamloops, Black Elk said that the “shock” referenced by non-Indigenous leaders, such as Pope Francis, is not a shared feeling.

“A lot of Indigenous communities are expressing a lot of devastation and sadness and anger, but not shock,” he said. “Absolutely not shock. We’ve known about this. There really is this challenge that we have to work through, which is that—especially in the Catholic Church—so many Catholic people want to believe that the Catholic schools had to be different, that their faith had to inform something different. And to find out that that wasn't the case, is often very difficult for people to grapple with.”

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna Kunze
Staff Writer
Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily News. In 2020, she was one of 16 U.S. journalists selected by the Pulitzer Center to report on the effects of climate change in the Alaskan Arctic region. Prior to that, she served as lead reporter at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in New York.