Residential school survivors call on Pope to acknowledge unmarked graves

A group of First Nations residential school survivors is urging Pope Francis to acknowledge that many students forced to attend the institutions were buried in unmarked graves — and their parents were never told or permitted to bring their children home for burial.

Suggested apology submitted to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for the Vatican's consideration

A child's pair of shoes with orange laces and the word "Remember" written on the front.
A pair of children's shoes with orange laces forms part of a memorial outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the more than 200 children who are believed to be buried in unmarked graves nearby. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

A group of First Nations residential school survivors is urging Pope Francis to acknowledge that many students forced to attend the institutions were buried in unmarked graves — and their parents were never told or permitted to bring their children home for burial.

The newly revived National Indian Residential School Circle of Survivors submitted the request on Wednesday to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) for consideration.

It also asked the 85-year-old pontiff to acknowledge that the church failed to report abusers to the authorities and, in some cases, simply transferred them to other schools.

The demands are part of a draft apology the survivors say they want to hear Pope Francis deliver in Canada. Last month, the Vatican said the Pope would visit Canada July 24-30, making stops in Edmonton, Québec and Iqaluit.

"There's a lot of denial happening about us finding graves across the country," said survivor Ted Quewezance, the group's co-chair.

"It's about truth telling … We based our decision on that ground penetrating radar, on the elders, the oral history of the elders and we never expected to find anything, but we did."

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Residential school survivor Ted Quewezance said he wants to hear the Pope acknowledge the unmarked graves. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Quewezance's community of Keeseekoose First Nation, 285 kilometres northeast of Regina, announced last February that its ground-penetrating radar survey had found 54 potential gravesites near two of the residential schools that operated in or near the community.

Those institutions, Fort Pelly and St. Philip's, were run by the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1895 to 1969.

The discovery was made after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc community prompted a wave of searches for burial sites last year when it reported what are believed to be more than 200 unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Survivors call for new papal apology

Pope Francis apologized to First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates gathered at the Vatican on April 1 for the deplorable conduct of some church members at residential schools — but the apology didn't go far enough for some survivors.

"We thought it would be better if the Holy Father apologized on behalf of the Catholic Church as a whole and not just apologize for the misconduct of certain individuals," said residential school survivor Kenneth Young, a former lawyer and Manitoba regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations from Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

The group wants the Pope to accept responsibility for the significant harm caused by the church's pursuit — with the Canadian government — of an assimilation policy through residential schools.

Group members say they're only willing to accept an apology that recognizes church practices were designed to prohibit Indigenous children from speaking their languages, practising their cultures and learning about their rights.

They say it must also account for the physical, psychological, spiritual and sexual abuse the children suffered.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend government-funded residential schools operated by the Catholic, Anglican and other churches between the 1870s and 1997.

The Catholic Church ran most of the institutions.

Pope Francis holds an audience in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace with the First Nations delegation from Canada. (Vatican Media/Reuters)

Young said he received some pushback from bishops initially on the group's suggested apology, but they're more receptive to the latest version.

In a statement issued to CBC News, the CCCB said bishops and survivors continue to meet to discuss Pope Francis's statement on residential schools.

"These insights have been shared with Vatican officials," said a CCCB spokesperson.

"The Pope, reflecting and deeply moved by his interaction with survivors as well as the insights provided, will ultimately determine the specific words that he will share during his time in Canada."

The TRC called on the Pope to deliver an apology on Canadian soil one year after it issued its 2015 final report.

It recommended the Pope apologize specifically to survivors, their families and communities for the church's role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.

Demands for reparations

The survivors' circle is also calling for the church to commit to reparations and restitution.

It also demands that the Pope renounce the Doctrine of Discovery — centuries-old papal decrees used to justify the seizure of Indigenous land in the Americas by colonial powers.

The doctrine is based on two papal bulls issued in 1455 and 1493 that gave the church's blessing to explorers' claims to Africa and the Americas.

It declares all lands held by Indigenous Peoples to be terra nullius — Latin for "nobody's land."

Scrapping the doctrine would fulfil the Roman Catholic Church's role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call to action 49, which urges all religious and faith groups to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and people.

Residential school survivor Kenneth Young said he wants to make sure Pope Francis apologizes in Canada for the role the Roman Catholic Church played in residential schools. (Travis Golby/CBC)

If the Pope's statement in Canada doesn't include the elements survivors are looking for, Young said, it may not be widely accepted.

"People will look and review what he says and reaction will be very swift," Young said.

Quewezance said an apology is an apology.

"As long as [Pope Francis] apologizes, that's all that counts in my mind," Quewezance said.

"Every other survivor has different thoughts and we have to respect survivors."

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Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.