No Apology for Residential School Survivors

What do the Crusades, Slavery, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the Sins of the Church have in common? All have been the subjects of apologies from popes on behalf of the Catholic Church.

By Nacho Arteaga nachoarteaga ( [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Pope Francis. (Photo by Nacho Arteaga nachoarteaga, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Bolivia in July 2015, the current pope, Francis, apologized for “the grave sins committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.”

It is, therefore, more than passing strange that Pope Francis has refused to issue an apology to the Indigenous people in our country for the residential school debacle in which the Catholic Church was so complicit (almost 2/3 of those schools were operated by the Catholic Church.) While the Oblate Order and the United and Anglican Churches have issued apologies for their participation in a government-sponsored program that resulted in 150,000 native children, (at least 6,000 of whom died), growing up deprived of their families, their languages and their customs, the Catholic Church has never officially apologized and has given no reason for its decision.


Such a refusal flies in the face of the image we have of this Pope — defying anyone who attempts to keep him on a short leash as he carries out his daily duties, rattling cages among the curia, who seem to have lost their battle of wits with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. You might assume the Vatican has established a department devoted entirely to walking back some of Francis’ statements or musings on various dogmas and doctrines that so many of the curia codgers still clutch closely to their red-robed chests. So why on earth would he take the advice of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and refuse this long-overdue apology to our Indigenous people for the suffering they endured — suffering at the hands of those whose lives were supposedly dedicated to doing “God’s work?”

According to what Bishop Lionel Gendron, president of said Conference, told Canadian Press reporter Mia Rabson, “after carefully considering the request [for an apology] and after extensive dialog with the bishops of Canada,” the Pope indicated that he could not “personally respond.” Gendron stated in a letter to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada that the Pope has not “shied away from acknowledging injustices” done to Native people around the world, but he had no explanation for why Pope Francis couldn’t do the same for the Indigenous people of Canada.

Class portrait of male students, nuns, a priest and school personnel at St. Anthony%27s Indian Residential School, Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, ca. 1950 (Source: Library and Archives Canada)

Class portrait of male students, nuns, a priest and school personnel at St. Anthony%27s Indian Residential School, Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, ca. 1950 (Source: Library and Archives Canada)

It is obviously left to Catholics and others to speculate as to why this is so. Would such an acknowledgement leave the Canadian Church open to claims for compensation? Writing in the Toronto Star, Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, stated that in 2015 the bishops used “a loophole to walk away from their legal obligation to pay compensation,” so one would certainly suspect they have no stomach for opening up that can of worms.

It seems that while local Catholic parishes, including those in our own Antigonish diocese, were selling off properties and confiscating savings from those parishes fortunate enough to have them to pay compensation to victims of clergy abuse, a mistake by federal government lawyers allowed 50 Canadian Catholic entities to avoid paying millions in compensation to residential school survivors.

As APTN reported in October 2017:

In all, the 50 Catholic Entities who were parties to the [Residential School Settlement Agreement] committed to pay $54 million. Twenty-nine million was to go “in-kind” contributions to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. An additional $25 million was to go to “best efforts” fundraising. All of the money was intended to pay for programs that would help residential school survivors.

But Ron Kidd, a former provincial tax auditor in Vancouver, discovered that of that $54 million, $37,875,600 was never paid.

Being neither an accountant, nor a tax auditor nor a Philadelphia lawyer and never having heard of the notion of “best efforts” when it comes to raising compensation money, I nevertheless grasp that when the Catholic Church indicated that its “best efforts” didn’t produce the desired amount of money, it was somehow freed from its responsibilities under an agreement sanctioned by the federal government.


One assumes this problem was thoroughly discussed with Pope Francis, who then backed away from making any commitment whatsoever to say “We are sorry.” Senator Murray Sinclair, chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, called the decision a “setback,” putting it mildly I would say, though he also opined that the decision might “affect the church.”

The Pope’s response came as a sad surprise considering how he urged youth at the recent gathering in Rome to speak out: “You have the power to shout even if we older leaders, very often corrupt, keep quiet.”

Charlie Angus indicated that Romeo Saganash, NDP MP for Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou (and the first Aboriginal MP elected in Quebec) is expected to introduce a parliamentary motion calling on the Canadian bishops to recognize their obligation to begin the process of a papal apology. But would a reluctant apology coming as the result of such a motion or pressure from Canadians at large be worth the paper it was written on? Would a papal visit to Canada during which Pope Francis would openly acknowledge the horror visited on our Indigenous people really be accepted at this stage of the game? The descendants of those who survived the residential schools are probably more forgiving than most would be, given that they’ve had so much more practice at it, but Pope Francis should have followed the compassionate instincts that have served him so well in other circumstances.

Shame on the Canadian bishops!




Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.