Warning: This story deals with residential schools and deaths that took place there.
Despite calls for accountability from Indigenous communities and pressure from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Pope on Sunday expressed his “pain” over the deaths of children but stopped short of apologizing for the role of the Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system.
In a speech Sunday in St. Peter’s Square, and in a statement posted on Twitter, Pope Francis addressed the news that the remains of 215 children had been found at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C., expressing his “closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by (the) shocking discovery.”
The remains of the children were found in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last month using radar technology. The school was operated by the Catholic Church between 1890 and 1969. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report documented thousands of deaths at residential schools across Canada. It found that children at these schools died at a much higher rate than other children, and that in half of the documented cases, the cause of death was unknown.
“I am following with pain the news that arrives from Canada about the upsetting discovery of the remains of 215 children,” Francis said on Sunday.
“This sad discovery adds to the awareness of the sorrows and sufferings of the past,” he added.
His speech was met with anger and criticism on social media from Canadian politicians, Indigenous activists and others who called on the Pope to deliver a real apology for the Church’s role in residential schools, instead of a vague statement that did not directly mention Indigenous people.
Ontario New Democrat MPP Sol Mamakwa was blunt in his reaction on Twitter: “Not an apology.”
In an interview, Mamakwa, the MPP for Kiiwetinoong, said when he saw the Pope’s statement, “I just shook my head.”
“I thought the church was supposed to be about love, inclusion … confession,” he said.
Mamakwa said reconciliation cannot come without a true apology from the church, one that specifically addresses the survivors of residential schools and their families and communities.
“An actual apology from the Pope would be an acknowledgment of the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school system in Canada,” he said.
The discovery of the children’s remains was “not a shock to residential school survivors and Indigenous people across Canada,” said Mamakwa, adding that the church must release its records on residential schools in order to help Indigenous communities approach some form of closure.
“It’s about time the country and the world hears and listens and believes Indigenous people,” said Mamakwa. “It’s finally hitting the mainstream … I’m glad to see that.”
Nahanni Fontaine, a New Democrat MLA in Manitoba, said on Twitter that the Pope’s statement was “utterly divorced in analysis, responsibility or care for the fundamental role your institution, priests and nuns played in atrocities against Indigenous children.”
Former federal health minister Jane Philpott tweeted that truth and reconciliation require more than the “closeness” mentioned by the Pope.
“(A) response to these horrific acts requires an apology and a commitment to release all documents,” she wrote. “I’m a Protestant Christian and my faith includes recognizing my failures and saying I’m sorry.”
Two days earlier, Trudeau had called on the Pope to apologize after the discovery of the children’s remains had shocked Canadians. Many Indigenous people said the news did not come as a surprise to them and their communities, as they had been telling stories about the atrocities of residential schools for decades.
It’s not the first time Canada has sought an apology from the Catholic Church — Trudeau made the same request of the Pope in 2017, following up on one of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed in the position the church has taken over the last many years,” Trudeau said on Friday, also stressing the need to release church records on residential schools.
He said that, if necessary, the government could take “stronger measures” to compel the disclosure of church records. It’s not clear what those measures might be.
Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, said Friday that the Catholic order that ran 47 per cent of Canada’s residential schools, including the Kamloops site, has yet to release any records pertaining to the school.
The Pope has apologized for past injustices involving the Catholic Church in other parts of the world, including Ireland and Bolivia.
Though the pontiff has yet to offer the apology Trudeau and others are seeking, individual Catholic dioceses in Canada have taken it upon themselves to do so.
On Wednesday, Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller issued a “deep apology” via Twitter, adding that the church was “unquestionably wrong in implementing a government colonialist policy which resulted in devastation for children, families and communities.”
And on Thursday, Toronto’s archbishop issued a statement acknowledging the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system. He also held a mass on Sunday that honoured the victims.
“We must … recognize the betrayal of trust by many Catholic leaders … abandoning their obligation to care for young and innocent children,” Cardinal Thomas Collins said in the statement Thursday.
“These actions do not erase our history; they acknowledge our past, force us to face the consequences of our behaviour and compel us to ensure that our sins are not repeated.”
The United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches, as well as the Canadian government, have also apologized for their roles in the abuse suffered at residential schools.
On Friday, Toronto’s archdiocese told the Star that each diocese is independent and responsible for its own actions, and that “approximately 16 out of 70 Roman Catholic dioceses in Canada were associated with the former residential schools.”
In prepared documents shared with the Star, the archdiocese said a formal apology by the Pope would have to be done in person, and a visit to Canada would be difficult to arrange.
On Sunday, in an interview with The Canadian Press, Collins characterized Trudeau’s comments about the church needing to take responsibility as “unhelpful” and “not based on real facts.”
He noted that Pope Benedict XVI apologized in 2009 to a delegation from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations, calling the treatment of children in residential schools “deplorable.”
On Sunday afternoon, people gathered at Queen’s Park to commemorate the 215 lives lost at the Kamloops school, and to demand action. Attendees posted photos of a large banner that read, “This land belongs to our children,” next to the number 215 emblazoned in red.