Shubenacadie residential school survivors await next steps after apology letter from Catholic nuns

Some former students of the Shubenacadie residential school say there's still a lot of work to do by the Sisters of Charity, after the Halifax-based organization of Catholic nuns posted a letter on its website this week apologizing for its role in the school.

Survivor says in-person apology from Sisters of Charity would be more meaningful

Clark Paul attended Shubenacadie residential school in the 1950s. (Jeannine Faye Denny/Facebook)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Some former students of the Shubenacadie residential school say there's still a lot of work to do by the Sisters of Charity, after the Halifax-based organization of Catholic nuns posted a letter on its website this week apologizing for its role in the school.

The Sisters of Charity staffed the school from 1929 to 1967. The letter says the organization is "ashamed of the cruelty some people can inflict on others. We apologize that the actions of our Sisters, our ancestors, contributed to a system where children were separated from their families. We cannot stand by in the face of injustice."

Clark Paul, who attended in the school in the early 1950s, first learned of the apology when contacted by CBC News. After reading the letter, he said it does little to change his feelings about the actions of the nuns who worked at the school while he was a student.

"I think they're full of shit, to put it in plain language," he said.

Paul said the lives of some students were changed completely by the time they left the school, and that some of his peers carried their painful experiences with them until they died. 

"Something like that, you can't fix it. No matter how hard you try," he said. 

Paul said he thinks an apology given to survivors in person, with additional sharing and conversation, would have been more meaningful. Each student's experience at the schools was unique, he said, and their coping mechanisms are different. 

"I think there could've been help in it," he said. 

"To some, where the damage is so deep, it might lessen some of the hurt but they'll never be able to understand why this happened to them. It's a real slow, painful journey that one has to take to forgiveness."

Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.

Paul said he hopes the Sisters of Charity continues its efforts on the matter.

The apology letter said the Sisters of Charity works "with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in various projects. These collaborative projects put actions with our words. We ask our Indigenous brothers and sisters to continue to teach us so that we can work together to create a better future."

When asked for details about the projects, a spokesperson for Sisters of Charity said in an emailed statement that "there is no further comment." 

Three Sisters of Charity watch the ocean in this 1957 photo. Members of the organization ran the Shubenacadie institute at the time. (Halifax Congregational Archives)

'A good first step'

The apology letter is not without value, said Mi'kmaw Elder Dorene Bernard, who also attended the school. It marks progress in many communities' understanding of the painful history, she said.

Bernard and other Mi'kmaw elders were part of a conference call at the end of June with representatives from the group, unrelated to the letter. It was around the same time preliminary results from a ground penetrating radar investigation near the former St. Eugene's Mission School in southern British Columbia found 182 burial sites. 

"We actually just started having conversations and dialogue about residential schools, the role of Sisters of Charity and to me, it was a good first step," said Bernard. 

Bernard has been involved in efforts to better support residential school survivors emotionally and spiritually, and is helping to organize a gathering with that intention later this year. 

She said she's trying to navigate the complexities of the situation because many Mi'kmaq are still faithful Catholics. She said, like Clark Paul, that survivors can only speak to their own experiences. 

Mi'kmaw Elder Dorene Bernard (centre) leads a spiritual ceremony for land and water in June at the area in Goldboro, N.S., targeted for a proposed natural gas liquefaction facility. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Bernard said the dialogue between the Mi'kmaq and the Sisters of Charity was important, as it was "an emotional conversation," and that she's confident there is more to come. 

"We're all still working on it. I want [survivors] to have whatever they need, spiritually. So I think we're heading in the right direction and [the Sisters of Charity] are interested to know what they can do to help reconcile," she said.

"I just think we have a lot of work to do yet." 

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


Nic Meloney


Nic Meloney is a mixed heritage Wolastoqi video journalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.