The Current

Church apologies for residential schools a necessary step in reconciliation, says Vancouver Archbishop

A Vancouver archbishop says that apologies by local church figures for the institution’s role in Canada’s residential schools “might not be enough” in the absence of a formal apology from the pope. But he hopes they will be “accepted as gestures of goodwill.”

Pope Francis should make formal apology as well, says J. Michael Miller

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller issued a formal apology last week to Indigenous communities for the church's role in residential schools. (Archdiocese of Vancouver)

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

A Vancouver archbishop says that apologies by local church figures for the institution's role in Canada's residential schools "might not be enough" in the absence of a formal apology from the pope. But he hopes they will be "accepted as gestures of goodwill."

"I think apologies are a necessary part of reconciliation, and they get their weight if they're accompanied by actions," Archbishop J. Michael Miller told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Of course, the Holy Father speaks [as] a voice for the entire church. But, you know, I also think that apologies offered by the people who have been sort of closest to the situation, you know, they're heartfelt and sincere."

Miller issued a statement last Wednesday expressing his "deep apology and profound condolences" to families and communities impacted by recent news out of B.C. In late May, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said it found indications that the remains of 215 children could be buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The school fell under the responsibility of the Archdiocese of Vancouver until the mid-1940s, Miller said.

Preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating radar survey of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. indicated that as many as 215 children could be buried on the site. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press)

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend residential schools across the country between the 1870s and late 1990s, a project of church and government established to assimilate them. Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created in 2008 to document the schools' impacts on Indigenous people, described the system as "cultural genocide."

As part of his apology, Miller offered mental health support to those impacted by the possible discovery of the remains, and promised to help First Nations within the archdiocese's boundaries "to honour, retrieve and remember their deceased children."

No apology from Pope

The archbishop's statement comes amid growing demands for Pope Francis to formally apologize for the church's role in Canada's residential schools. The TRC previously demanded a papal apology in 2015, when it released its final report on the schools and its 95 calls to action, which were intended to serve as a roadmap toward reconciliation.

Speaking in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on Sunday, the pope expressed his pain over the discovery of the possible children's remains in Kamloops. He spoke of reconciliation and healing, but offered no apology.

Miller said the pope may have felt that it wasn't the most appropriate occasion to issue a formal apology from his balcony during the Sunday Angelus. Traditionally, that is a time where the pope offers comments on situations around the world, Miller explained. 

But a papal apology is a much more formal event and would likely be done in person, with people present, and might be delivered in English or French, rather than in Italian, the archbishop said.

"I know that the apology that is being asked for from the TRC is that the pope come in person to issue an apology," he added. 

"If someone asked me, do I think the pope should apologize, I would say yes."

Demands for school records to be released

Besides calls for an official apology from the pope, Indigenous people and advocates have been demanding that church groups release important records related to residential schools so other buried children can be found.

Miller said the Vancouver Archdiocese has already provided the TRC with records related to the former Kamloops residential school, and promised those records would remain available. He urged other Catholic and government organizations to do the same.

CTV reported that the Canadian government destroyed thousands of files related to residential schools between 1934 and 1944.

Meanwhile, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Aki-Kwe), director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, told The Current last week about thousands of photos and other archives that Canadian church organizations have been withholding.

Others, including Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, have suggested the Vatican may be withholding important records on the schools as well.

Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Association of First Nation Women hold a ceremony in honour of the 215 children believed to be buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on May 28. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Miller described the practices that took place at residential schools as "simply wrong."

"And when things are wrong, even evil … we express remorse," he said. "There's no defending practices of cultural, psychological and emotional or sexual abuse." 

He said the possible discovery of remains in Kamloops has caused him to reflect not only on how such a tragedy happened, but how to ensure it never happens again.

"I think it's just sort of heightened the awareness of, you know, the need to honour and to treasure the human dignity of each and every person and his or her culture."

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.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Ines Colabrese.

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