On Sunday, Pope Francis expressed shock and sorrow after “the discovery in Canada of the remains of 215 children, pupils of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the province of British Columbia”.
During his weekly address to the crowd in Saint Peter’s Square Sunday afternoon, the Pope said he “joins the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing his closeness to the Canadian people who have been traumatised by the shocking news.”
The Pontiff issued an appeal to political and religious authorities in Canada “to continue to work together with determination to shed light on this sad event and to commit themselves humbly to a path of reconciliation and healing”.
His Holiness further stressed the need to “turn away from the colonial model and from ideological colonisations” and to follow a path of “dialogue, mutual resect and recognitions” of the rights and cultural values of all people of Canada.
The Pope’s message comes two days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put pressure on the Catholic Church to release residential schools records. On Friday, Trudeau called on church officials to take responsibility for their role in the residential school system and the atrocities that took place there.
This “call to action” comes after the discovery of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves on the grounds of a former Indian residential school in Kamloops, B.C. The school was operated by the Catholic Church between 1890-1969 and then taken over by the Federal Government until its doors closed in 1978.
Thus far, the Catholic Church has resisted the release of records, further hampering efforts to identify the children buried on the grounds. Some contend that the Federal authorities must also have them.
“As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed by the decision that the Catholic Church has taken now and over the past many years”, Trudeau said during Friday’s press conference. He also reiterated his direct request to Pope Francis, made years ago, to release the records, implement restitution measures and issue a formal apology.
Across Canada, more that 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were separated from their families and forced to attend government funded schools. The Catholic church operated about 70% of the residential schools in Canada. According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, more than 4,100 children died while attending the schools, causes included disease and malnourishment.
Nearly two weeks ago, the Prime Minister delivered a formal apology for the internment of Italian Canadians during the Second World War, some 80 years later. It has been a longer wait for the Indigenous community. In 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered an apology to residential school survivors and all Indigenous Canadians. The community has yet to hear a formal apology from the Pontiff himself.
On June 5, according to the Vatican’s daily announcement of papal appointments, Pope Francis met with two Vatican-based Canadians Cardinals. Both Cardinal Michael Czerny and Cardinal Marc Ouellet engaged in separate private audiences with his Holiness. Although the agenda of the meeting was not released, one could only speculate the topic of discussion considering the recent events in Canada.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) administered and ran several residential schools in Canada. The order delivered an apology in 1991 for its role in running the Kamloops school.
Father Ken Thorson, leader of the OMI issued a statement on behalf of the order. It read: “I wish to express my heartfelt sadness and sincere regret for the deep pain and distress”, following the recent discovery.