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A family stands in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School A family stands in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School  (AFP or licensors)

Canadian Bishops apologize for ‘grave abuses’ at residential schools

The Catholic Bishops of Canada join their voices in issuing a formal statement of apology to indigenous communities who suffered in “Indian Residential Schools”, with Bishop Poisson emphasizing the importance of an upcoming meeting of First Nations peoples with Pope Francis.

By Devin Watkins

The Bishops of Canada have formally apologized to indigenous peoples for the Church’s role in staffing residential schools.

Canada’s Bishops, meeting in their Autumn Plenary Assembly, unanimously approved a statement which recognized that “grave abuses” had been committed by some in the Catholic community, and expressed their “profound remorse” and apologized “unequivocally.”

In the statement issued on Friday, they said abuses took place which were “physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual.”

“Many Catholic religious communities and dioceses participated in this system, which led to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality, failing to respect the rich history, traditions and wisdom of Indigenous Peoples.”

The legacy of that suffering, and “historical and ongoing trauma,” said the Bishops, continues to this day.

First formal apology

Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme and Mont-Laurier dioceses spoke to Vatican News’ Marine Henriot about the apology.

The Bishop, who was just elected as the president of the Canadian Bishops’ Conference, commented on the importance of the apology.

“This is the first time that, officially, all the Bishops of Canada have unanimously made an apology,” said Bishop Poisson.

He added that the Church in Canada is made up of around 65 dioceses, which belies the importance of their agreeing with one voice to issue such an apology. “Every Bishop voted for this apology,” he said.

Cardinal Gerald Lacroix, the Archbishop of Quebec, tweeted his support for the apology, and said Canada’s Bishops are committed to reconciliation and healing for indigenous peoples.

Listen to the full interview

Meeting with the ‘chief’ of the Church

In their statement, Canada’s Bishops recalled that Pope Francis has scheduled a meeting with survivors of the residential schools, several First Nations (as indigenous communities are known in Canada) elders, and young indigenous people. The encounter will take place in the Vatican on 17-20 December 2021.

“Pope Francis will encounter and listen to the Indigenous participants, so as to discern how he can support our common desire to renew relationships and walk together along the path of hope in the coming years,” wrote the Bishops.

Though the Church is largely decentralized, Bishop Poisson said indigenous peoples in Canada view the Pope through their own cultural lens as a sort of “chief”.

“In the First Nations culture, the Pope is the ‘chief’ of the Church, just like the First Nations have a chief,” he said, adding that the encounter is meant to be primarily pastoral, rather than political.

Fundraising initiatives and healing

Canada’s Bishops also expressed their commitment to the process of healing and reconciliation, and pledged to fundraise to support pastoral initiatives “discerned locally with Indigenous partners.”

They also invited First Nations peoples to “journey with us into a new era of reconciliation,” which includes prioritizing healing initiatives and educating Catholic clergy and lay faithful on indigenous cultures and spirituality.

“We commit ourselves to continue the work of providing documentation or records that will assist in the memorialization of those buried in unmarked graves,” read the Bishops’ statement.

Symptomatic of a deeper problem

Commenting on the healing process, Bishop Poisson admitted much has yet to be done, but said the formal apology is “the first step in the process.”

He lamented the painful history of the Church’s involvement in Indian Residential Schools.

“These schools,” said Bishop Poisson, “are symptomatic of what happens when civilizations refuse to understand one another, and just want to turn the other into the same thing that he is, and make the other disappear.”

The Quebecois Bishop said the Church seeks to create a new relationship with Canada’s First Nations peoples, one based on mutual trust and understanding.

“We want to be together to decide the mode of education, listening to one another, walking together, and sharing our experiences, cultures, languages, and historical roots,” he said. “It is possible for us to be the real people of God. That is what they want and what we want: animated by the same Spirit but with different cultures.”

25 September 2021, 16:46