Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked Pope Francis to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools for indigenous children. Trudeau’s appeal came after nearly 1,000 bodies of indigenous children were found in two mass graves in June 2021.
In early June, 751 unmarked graves had been found at the site of Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan. Few weeks ago, 215 unmarked graves were discovered at a former residential school in Kamloops in British Columbia. Both schools were part of a system that took Indigenous children from their families over a period of about 113 years and housed them in boarding schools, where they were prohibited from speaking their languages.
The mass graves were discovered by members of indigenous communities through the use of ground-penetrating radar. The effort to find remains started at the Kamloops school about 20 years ago. The school which operated from 1890 until the late 1970s, and was once Canada’s largest, with 500 students at its peak.
Among the 215 bodies found by the radar, there appears to be one of a child who died as young as 3, said Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc. All of the children were buried decades ago, she said. Among the bodies found by the radar, was a child who died as young as 3. All the children were buried decades ago. Leaders of indigenous communities anticipate that more remains would be discovered as the ground is scanned further.
Catholic run residential school system
The Catholic run residential school system in Canada operated between 1831 and 1996. In the late 19th century, Canada set aside land for Indigenous people through often dubious treaties, while outright seizing Indigenous land in some places, particularly in British Columbia.
Around 1883 the federal government forced Indigenous children in many parts of Canada to attend residential schools, often far from their communities. The Church operated schools banned the use of Indigenous languages and Indigenous cultural practices, often through violence.
The Church removed about 150,000 indigenous children from their families and brought them to Christian residential schools. The goal was to ‘assimilate’ indigenous children into Western culture through the notorious residential schools. The Catholic churches had banned the use of Indigenous languages and cultural practices. Records show that disease as well as sexual, physical and emotional abuse were widespread among Indigenous children in these schools.
A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Canadian government spent six years hearing from 6,750 witnesses to document the history of the schools. In a report in 2015, it concluded that the system was a form of “cultural genocide.”
Some former students testified before the commission that priests at the schools had fathered infants with Indigenous students, that the babies had been taken away from their young mothers and killed, and that in some cases their bodies were thrown into furnaces. Many students also died from disease, accidents, fires and during attempts to escape, according to the commission.
It is to be noted that Pope Francis has not issued a direct apology over the Church run school system but said he was ‘pained’ by the discovery of Mass Graves of indigenous children.