Ottawa archbishop apologizes for Catholic Church's role in residential school system

Ottawa-Cornwall Archbishop Marcel Damphousse issued a formal apology Monday to Indigenous people for the Catholic Church's role in the residential school system.

Catholic Archbishop Marcel Damphousse also calls for Pope Francis to apologize for harm caused

Ottawa-Cornwall Archbishop Marcel Damphousse formally apologized to Indigenous people for the Catholic Church's role in Canada's residential school system in a video posted to YouTube on National Indigenous Peoples Day. (Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall/YouTube)

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

Ottawa-Cornwall Archbishop Marcel Damphousse issued a formal apology Monday to Indigenous people for the Catholic Church's role in the residential school system.

He also called on Pope Francis, the global head of the church of approximately 1.3 billion people, to apologize, as well.

The apology is the latest expression of contrition from a Canadian Catholic leader since the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains adjacent to a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. It follows similar apologies from the archbishops of Vancouver and Regina.

We sinned against our brothers and sisters in our care.- Archbishop Marcel Damphousse

More than 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools across Canada between the 1880s and 1996, with many suffering physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Most of the schools were operated by Catholic denominations on behalf of the federal government.

"I extend my sincere apology for the involvement of the Catholic Church in the residential school system and I pray for healing as the church in Canada walks the path of reconciliation with the Indigenous people in our community," Damphousse said in a video posted to the archdiocese's YouTube channel on National Indigenous Peoples Day.

"I add my voice to those who are asking the Holy Father for an apology to Indigenous Peoples."

Shoes line the edge of the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in memory of the children whose remains are believed to have been found adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School at Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Apology comes after learning process, archbishop says

In the video, Damphousse said the Kamloops discovery prompted him to read, listen and learn more about the impact of the residential school system on Indigenous people. 

"The accounts we heard both in the Truth and Reconciliation report and more recently in these past few weeks of the experience of many Indigenous residential school students were shameful," Damphousse said. 

"As a church, we failed not only to be authentic witnesses to the goodness of Jesus Christ, but we sinned against our brothers and sisters in our care."

But one local residential school survivor says she's angry about how little the archbishop knew about residential schools.

Evelyn Korkmaz was forced to go to St. Anne's Residential School which was run by the Catholic Church in Fort Albany, Ont. She said Damphousse needs to learn more about the residential school system first.

"How can you have a sincere apology if you don't even know what you're apologizing about?"

In an interview on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning earlier this month, Damphousse admitted he knew little about the history or legacy of residential schools, a comment that drew criticism from former TRC commissioner Marie Wilson, who said the commission specifically called on churches to educate their members about their role in that chapter of Canadian history.

Damphousse said he has since reached out to the Kateri Native Ministry of Ottawa, a church located on Bronson Avenue named after Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Indigenous North American to be made a saint.

Damphousse said he's "asked for help" to learn how he can best support the local Indigenous community.

"I listened to requests for concrete actions we can take, including participating and promoting listening encounters with Indigenous people in our archdiocese, working with Indigenous Peoples in providing education for our clergy and parishioners facilitated by Indigenous Peoples," said Damphousse.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Pope Francis to apologize for the role the Catholic Church played in the tragedy of residential schools during a visit to the Vatican in 2018. (Ettore Ferrari/The Associated Press)

Korkmaz said an apology will not go far enough and wants Damphousse to urge the Vatican to release documents pertaining to residential schools.

"It's a start to acknowledge the wrongs ... that the church has done to our people or to myself, but after the apology, we need concrete action," she said.

WATCH | Reaction to the apology: 

‘We need concrete action’: Residential school survivor says archbishop’s apology isn’t enough

2 years ago
Duration 0:48
Evelyn Korkmaz, who was forced to attend St. Anne’s Residential School, says the apology from Catholic Archbishop Marcel Damphousse must be followed by action, and called on the church to release documents related to the operation of the schools.

Francis has called for healing, but stopped short of apologizing for the Catholic Church's role in running the schools, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally asked him to consider such a gesture during a 2018 visit to the Vatican. A papal apology was one of the 94 recommendations made by the TRC.

In remarks delivered at St. Peter's Square earlier this month, Francis said he was pained by the Kamloops discovery and called for respect of the rights and culture of Indigenous people.

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.