Retired Calgary bishop: Canadian government must own ‘primary’ responsibility for abuses of Indigenous

Kamloops Indian Residential School, Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada / Bruce Raynor/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Jun 10, 2021 / 16:15 pm (CNA).

The retired bishop of Calgary this week said the Canadian government must shoulder its “primary” responsibility for past abuses in the country’s residential school system. He maintained that Catholic Church leaders must also “own our sinfulness” in the abuses.

“We have a right to less pompous posturing and more forthright action on the part of (the) federal government,” said Bishop Fred Henry in a June 7 letter reported by Bill Kauffmann in outlets of Canada’s Postmedia Network. Bishop Henry retired as bishop of Calgary in 2017.

“Primary responsibility must be owned by the federal government,” Henry said in response to the recent discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at a former Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

On the weekend of May 22, unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, with the use of ground-penetrating radar. It is unclear how the children died.

Canada’s residential school system was established by the federal government beginning in the 1870s. The Kamloops school was opened in 1890 and was run by Catholics before the Oblates of Mary Immaculate oversaw the school beginning in 1893. In 1969, the government took back control of the school until it closed in 1978.

The last remaining residential school closed in 1996. Schools were established by the federal government and were run by Catholic or Christian denominations.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to document the abuses in the country’s residential school system and which operated from 2008 until 2015, reported that the system operated as a means of forcibly assimilating First Nations and Indigenous children. Children were separated from their families and sent to the schools, in order to strip them of family and cultural ties.

According to the commission, an estimated 4,100 to 6,000 children died as a result of neglect or abuse at the schools.

“The federal government never established an adequate set of standards and regulations to guarantee the health and safety of residential school students,” Bishop Henry said. “This failure occurred despite the fact that the government had the authority to establish those standards,” he said, quoting the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“The failure to establish and enforce adequate standards, coupled with the failure to adequately fund the schools, resulted in unnecessarily high residential school death rates,” he added.

Kaufmann quoted Bishop Henry in an interview saying that the Church must also own up to its role in the residential school abuses. “We didn’t show enough respect to the native peoples in their beliefs and culture,” he said.

One of the calls of the commission’s 2015 report was for a papal apology “to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.”

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto explained in a June 3 statement that a formal papal apology would involve an in-person papal visit to Canada, requiring significant logistical actions. Pope Francis has already encouraged the country’s bishops to lead on the process of reconciliation for the Church’s role in the school system, he said.

Pope Benedict XVI previously met with Canadian Indigenous leaders in 2009 at the Vatican, where according to Cardinal Collins he expressed his “sorrow and anguish” for the abuses in the schools.

Pope Francis last Sunday expressed sorrow over the discovery of the unmarked graves, but did not issue a formal apology.

“May Canada’s political and religious authorities continue to work together with determination to shed light on this sad event and humbly commit themselves to a path of reconciliation and healing,” the pope said at the June 6 Sunday Angelus at the Vatican.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic, in 2017 met with Pope Francis and raised the issue of the residential school system, inviting the pope to come to Canada. Last week, Trudeau said he was “deeply disappointed” at the lack of a formal apology by the Church, calling on the Church to release all relevant records for the schools and saying the government had “tools” to apply if the Church did not do so, according to the Associated Press.

Appearing on CBC on Sunday, Cardinal Collins called Trudeau’s remarks “extremely unhelpful” and “uninformed,” saying the Kamloops school’s records are available at the Royal British Columbia Museum. The school’s records were also given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Other relevant Catholic institutions “should” release their records on the schools if they have not already done so, Collins added.

In his June 7 letter, Bishop Henry criticized “pompous posturing,” in an apparent reference to Trudeau’s comments.

The country’s bishops have issued statements following the discovery of the Indigenous children’s remains.

Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, president of the Canadian bishops’ conference, prayed for the deceased children and said that “Honouring the dignity of the lost little ones demands that the truth be brought to light,” in a May 31 statement.

Bishop Joseph Nguyen of Kamloops on May 28 said he was “heartbroken and horrified” by the discovery, offering his “deepest sympathy to Chief Roseanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation and to all who are mourning this tragedy and unspeakable loss.”

In a June 2 letter to First Nations governments and other Indigenous populations, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB of Vancouver promised “tangible actions” to support school survivors and the families of the deceased.

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