British Columbia

Vancouver Catholic school students call on religious order to apologize for its role in residential schools

Hundreds of students affiliated with an all-girls Vancouver Catholic school are calling for an apology from the religious order that established their institution for its role in past atrocities committed against children in Canadian residential schools.

Sisters of St. Ann founded Little Flower Academy in 1927

The Sisters of St. Ann were assigned to work at residential schools in Mission, Kamloops, Kuper Island near Chemainus and Lower Post, B.C. (Royal B.C. Museum )

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Hundreds of students affiliated with an all-girls Vancouver Catholic school are calling for an apology from the religious order that established their institution for its role in past atrocities committed against children in Canadian residential schools.

Little Flower Academy (LFA) was established in 1927 by the Sisters of St. Ann, an order of Roman Catholic nuns founded in Quebec in 1850. The same religious order also staffed residential schools where physical and sexual abuse against First Nations children has been documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In the wake of the preliminary discovery of the remains of 215 children buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was staffed by the Sisters of St. Ann, past and present students at the Little Flower Academy have signed a letter calling on school officials to ask the religious order to apologize.

"The sisters were presented as people and women to be celebrated and praised and respected," said Meleah McKee, who graduated in 2015. " A lot of messaging was about carrying out their legacy, which, knowing what I know now, is incredibly disturbing."

Original signage of Little Flower Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Vancouver, B.C., founded by the same religious order of nuns that staffed the Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Wikipedia/Iota 9)

As of Monday morning, over 1,000 women who do or did attend the all-girls academy were signatories to the letter that is addressed to Diane Little, the school principal, as well as all LFA faculty.

The letter, which CBC News received in draft form, not only calls for an apology, but also for curriculum updates for LFA students about the legacy of residential schools and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, edits to school material that "glorify colonization" and constant communication with students and parents about these changes.

"It's asking the school to implement long-term plans for education about residential schools and how exactly the Sisters of St. Ann were involved and is asking the school change the way it speaks about the sisters," said McKee, speaking on CBC's The Early Edition Monday.

The main administrative building of the Kamloops Indian Residential School is pictured in 1970. (Department of Citizenship and Immigration- Information Division / Library and Archives Canada)

McKee said the lack of LFA student knowledge about residential schools and the role of the Catholic church was evident when she and other students in her grade attended a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in 2013 on behalf of their school.

"We really did not know how directly the sisters were responsible for the trauma that the testimonies were speaking of," she said. "I just remember being confused and just an air of uncomfortableness with my class and it's frustrating because that was such a clear opportunity to truly educate us." 

CBC reached out to LFA and was told by Little the school does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the Sisters of St. Ann.

In a statement, the academy said it planned to use the devastating discovery in Kamloops to "inform an immediate response in our teaching and learning to build a more just and compassionate society."

The school said it has a number of educational activities planned for the final weeks of school, including two truth and reconciliation days of learning where faculty will have "meaningful conversations with their classes, incorporating age-appropriate resources."

"It is our responsibility to teach the truth about the residential school system; to deepen our collective understanding of the inter-generational harm that the residential school system caused; to acknowledge the role of the Catholic Church within these schools; to contribute to the process of reconciliation and healing; and, to take action against the societal injustices that continue within our communities today," said the statement.

Former LFA students are planning a peaceful event for Friday morning on the steps of the academy to honour residential school students who never made it home and as a statement to school faculty.

Meleah Mckee speaks with Stephen Quinn about the push to get school leaders to do more. 5:43

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from The Early Edition