After survivors speak, Anglican leader apologizes for church allowing 'terrible crime' at residential schools

The spiritual leader of the Anglican Church told survivors gathered at a Saskatchewan First Nation Saturday that he was sorry the church had allowed "terrible crime" to occur at residential schools.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby met with survivors at James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan

Rev. Justin Welby visits the James Smith Cree Nation Saturday to listen to residential school survivors and learn about their experiences, while atoning and repenting for the actions of the Anglican Church in operating residential schools in Canada. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

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

The spiritual leader of the Anglican Church told survivors gathered at a Saskatchewan First Nation Saturday that he was sorry the church had allowed "terrible crime" to occur at residential schools.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby started his visit at James Smith Cree Nation, east of Prince Albert, around midday, when he met dignitaries from Indigenous governments from James Smith and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan.

"I want to recognize, for myself and my colleagues, the level of pain that you are willing to undergo, so that your story is heard," Welby said. 

"I will say that I come in ignorance, needing to hear each and every shame, needing to signify that shame, and respect those on whom such terrible injustices were committed."

Survivors from all over Saskatchewan shared their stories about how the residential school system ripped families apart, raised self-doubt and self-confidence issues and left them with traumas as a result of sexual and physical abuse. Many spoke about how they didn't blame the church, but those acting on behalf of the church.

Dennis Sanderson from James Smith Cree Nation shared his experiences at residential schools before the Archbishop of Canterbury visited the community on Saturday. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

After listening to their stories, Welby offered his apology. 

"The grace that you have shown in saying it was not the church that did this — I suppose it is an extraordinary grace. I suppose I want to say that that's perhaps the only thing I question. That it was not the church that did it. But it was the church that permitted it. That allowed it. That turned a blind eye to it. And still does, sometimes," Welby said. 

"And for that terrible crime, sin, evil of deliberating consciously stupidly — because evil is stupid. Building hell and putting children into it. And staffing it. I am more sorry than I could ever ever begin to express.... I am sorry. I am more sorry than I could say. I'm ashamed. I am horrified."

Welby acknowledged it wouldn't be easy for survivors to speak at the event, and that recounting their experiences may be painful to share.

WATCH | Anglican Church leader apologizes for church's role in permitting residential school abuses: 

Anglican leader apologizes for church's role in permitting residential school abuses

1 year ago
Duration 2:54
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby apologized for the church's role in 'turning a blind eye' to abuses suffered by survivors of Canada's residential school system while visiting James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

He said understanding survivors' suffering would be impossible, but that he hoped to move himself from "unconscious ignorance" to being deeply aware of their experiences, and to move himself to humility before those gathered. 

Survivors like Dennis Sanderson gathered in James Smith to share their stories with the archbishop.

Sanderson attended Gordon's Indian Residential School, about 100 kilometres northeast of Regina, for three years before attending the All Saints Residential School in Prince Albert. Both were operated by the Anglican Church.

"It's a good thing for them to come and say 'I'm sorry,' too, you know? It makes you feel good and hopefully it makes our community members feel good," Sanderson said Saturday morning.

Dennis Sanderson, left, was among those who greeted Welby when he arrived at James Smith Cree Nation's Bernard Constant Community School on Saturday. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Sanderson said he was able to deal with the trauma 11 years of residential school left him with by exploring his culture, his ceremonies and his First Nations way of life. 

The Anglican Church was part of his life growing up outside of residential schools; Sanderson said his dad was actively involved in Anglican Church activities in James Smith Cree Nation.

Underpromise, overdeliver

The archbishop offered to follow through on some actions on Saturday after listening to survivors' stories about residential schools, the institution's lasting impacts and the traumas they have to live with. 

"I want to avoid what happens too easily at times like this, which is to overpromise and underdeliver," Welby said. 

"I want rather to underpromise and overdeliver, if by God's grace, I'm given the strength to do so."

His promise, to those who gathered in the gymnasium, was to talk with Archbishop Linda Nicholls, who invited the archbishop to Saskatchewan, about what they can do to address the damage left in particular by the Doctrine of Discovery. 

The Doctrine of Discovery was the framework that colonial countries, England, Spain, Portugal and others, used to justify claiming land in North America and other continents as their own. 

Numerous survivors spoke about how it led to the creation of residential schools and in turn, the impacts they're having to deal with today. 

The St. Stephen's Anglican Church on James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. On Saturday, Welby visited the community, located southeast of Prince Albert. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Welby said he also hoped to ensure survivors' stories of suffering at residential schools are heard in order to prevent such terrible actions from happening to anyone else at the hands of the church. 

Between 1820 and 1969, the Anglican Church ran roughly three dozen residential schools in Canada, and also ran more than 150 Indian day schools, according to a list compiled for the Federal Indian Day School class action.

The Anglican Church apologized for its role in residential schools in 1993 and in 2019. It has also paid $15.7 million in compensation. 

The church was also refunded $2.8 million, which it said it invested into Indigenous ministry programs, after a different compensation formula was negotiated with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Archbishop of Canterbury addressed people gathered in the James Smith Cree Nation's Bernard Constant Community School on Saturday afternoon. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Earlier this week, survivors and advocates questioned the purpose of the visit, and whether it will result in meaningful action.

Further Canadian visits planned

Welby, who as archbishop is the religious leader of the Church of England, though not the head of the church — a title that belongs to the British monarch — also plans to travel to Prince Albert on Sunday before heading to Toronto.

His visit coincides with the 50th session of the Provincial Synod, which is being hosted by the Diocese of Saskatchewan in Prince Albert until Sunday. Delegates from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, as well as the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, will attend. 

At 2 p.m. on Sunday, Welby will gather with Anglican and non-Anglican Indigenous leaders. 

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports. A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


  • An earlier version of this story indicated the Anglican Church ran three dozen residential schools in Saskatchewan. In fact, it ran roughly three dozen schools in Canada.
    Apr 30, 2022 8:37 AM CT

With files from Jason Warick