The Catholic Church and Canada’s Residential Schools

The Catholic Church long ago joined the ranks of the mighty who have fallen, given its obvious knowledge and cover-up of the sexual abuse scandal that has caused so many former Catholics to abandon the pews they’d occupied weekly for the greater part of their lives.  But a series of horrendous discoveries in relation to the Church’s long-identified connection to Canada’s Residential School system has shocked and saddened people here and around the world.

The remains of 215 children discovered in a mass grave on the grounds of what had been, at one point, the largest residential school in Canada, the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, followed quickly by the discovery of more than 751 unmarked graves on the grounds of Marieval Indian Residential School at Cowessess First Nation near Regina, Saskatchewan, has created a storm of protest, not only from Indigenous people, but from Canadians coast to coast. Here in Nova Scotia, a search of the grounds of the former Shubenacadie residential school is underway.

Kamloops Indian Residential School Site, TRC report

Kamloops IRS. (Source: “Where are the Children buried?” Dr. Scott Hamilton.)

A Parks Canada account of Canada’s Residential School System traces its roots to the 17th century boarding schools for Indigenous children established by Roman Catholic missionaries in colonial New France. The first such schools to be established under British colonial rule appeared in Upper Canada (southern Ontario) in the early 19th century. “Concerted federal government involvement” in Residential Schools began in the 1880s in what, by then, was Canada.


The schools were founded on “notions of racial, cultural and spiritual superiority and attempted to convert Indigenous children to Christianity and separate them from their traditional cultures.” First Nations, Inuit and Metis Nations children, more than 150,000 all told, were taken from their families and their communities to attend the schools, which were often far from their homes. As noted in the National Catholic Reporter‘s Global Sisters Report, “children were not allowed to speak their own languages and in testimonies to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” formed in 2008 to investigate the Residential School System, “survivors recounted sexual, physical and psychological abuse.” In 2015, the Commission concluded the residential schools were part of a program of “cultural genocide.” Many of the children who attended them never returned.

The TRC spent six years travelling across Canada, hearing from more than 6,500 witnesses, including many survivors. In the end, it said we may never know the exact number of children who died in these schools — died of disease, mainly, particularly Tuberculosis — but that it had identified the names of, or information about, more than 4,100 of them. (In 2019, a ceremonial cloth with the names of 2,800 of these children was unveiled during a ceremony at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.)

A ceremonial cloth with the names of 2,800 children who died in Canada's residential schools

A ceremonial cloth with the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools (CBC photo)

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, has said there are “too many unanswered questions including how many burial sites exist in Canada, where they are located and how many children are buried in them.” He has warned Canadians “they should be prepared for the discovery of many more remains.”

Even before the TRC, burial sites had been discovered at some residential schools. Writing in the National Post on May 29, Tristin Hopper said:

The Battleford Industrial School in Saskatchewan has 72 graves that lay forgotten until rediscovered by archaeology students in the 1970s. In 2001, heavy rains outside High River, Alta., exposed the coffins of 34 children who had died at nearby Dunbow Residential School. In 2019, archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar found the crudely dug graves of as many as 15 children surrounding the former site of Saskatchewan’s Muskowekwan Residential School.

But in general, finding the graves of the children who died in these schools has been difficult because of what Lakehead University Anthropology Professor Scott Hamilton, in a paper on the TRC site, called “the varying circumstances of death and burial, coupled with the generally sparse information about Residential School cemeteries.” Finding these cemeteries, he said:

…requires a historic understanding of school operations that contextualizes the patterns underlying death and burial. When documentation is insufficient, this historical perspective also aids prediction which former school sites are most likely to be associated with cemeteries. Also important is identifying the locations of the former schools as precisely as possible (an issue complicated by the fact that some schools were rebuilt in various locations under the same name), and then seeking out physical evidence of a nearby cemetery (or cemeteries). In some cases information is readily available, but in others there was little to be found in the available archival documents. In those situations attention shifted to an internet-based search, coupled with examination of maps and satellite images.

Hamilton’s work was focused on documents and imagery, he didn’t speak with First Nations, churches or municipalities within which the schools are now located. Locally based research was to be the  next step in the process, followed by searches for cemeteries, like the ones now happening across the country.


It is worth remembering that Indigenous people always registered their opposition to these schools, the last of which did not close until the late 1990s. “From the earliest days of the schools,” Parks Canada states:

…objections were raised by students, their families, and Indigenous leaders. They protested everything from attendance to poor conditions, mistreatment, and the inadequate quality of schooling itself. Children fought against the system by refusing to let go of their languages and identities. Some children ran away from the schools in an effort to return home. Some died in the process. In the decades when the schools were shutting down, Indigenous peoples fought for official acknowledgement of the harms inflicted by the schools. Survivors advocated for recognition and reparations, and demanded that governments and churches be held accountable for the lasting legacy of harms caused.

These efforts, Parks Canada notes, “ultimately culminated” in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, apologies by the government, and the establishment of the TRC.  The TRC produced 94 Calls to Action and two commissioners are now saying the government needs to act more urgently to respond to them.


Because this is not a story with a conclusion — this is a story that continues to unfold. With each new day, there are new accounts from Residential School survivors, some of whom reached out to Bruce Allan, himself a survivor and a resolution support worker at the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. Allan spoke with the CBC on June 26, saying calls to his office have increased dramatically since the discovery of graves, which seems to have given some survivors the courage to speak out.

He said he’s heard “terrible” stories of young Indigenous girls and nuns being impregnated by priests, of children finding the body of an infant in a root cellar, of children discovering teeth in an ash pile after the furnace had been cleaned out. Allan says “survivors have always known” there were children buried at these residential school sites — in some cases, they witnessed the burials.


Although some were run by the Presbyterian, Anglican and United Churches, roughly 70% of Canada’s residential schools were run by Catholic entities,

All three Protestant denominations have apologized for their roles in the system, but not so the Catholic Church, although I must note that since the discoveries in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, individual bishops have extended their apologies, including the Bishop of the Diocese of Antigonish.  Archbishop Brian Dunn in Halifax says he’s willing to work with other church leaders across the country to ask the Pope to apologize to residential school survivors.

Not only has the Catholic Church failed to apologize, it has been slow to produce school records.

As of December 2015, the work of the TRC was transferred to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), a “repository for the complete history of the system with a goal to teach Canadians about its history.” Under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, “religious and government bodies were legally required to submit all relevant residential school records to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be transferred” to the NCTR. In 2018, however, it was discovered “that the NCTR was still waiting on over 3,000 photographs and numerous boxes of litigation material from the Grey Nuns in Montreal,” one of the religious groups involved in the residential school system.

Marieval Indian Residential School, TRC docs

Marieval IRS site. (Source: “Where are the Children Buried?” by Dr. Scott Hamilton.)

In the wake of the recent discoveries, the Catholic religious order that operated the Kamloops and Marieval schools — the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate —  has agreed (at last) to disclose all historical documents in its possession. God only knows what they will reveal if, in fact, they haven’t been altered in any way.

And according to the National Catholic Reporter‘s Global Sisters Report, the Sisters of St. Ann, the religious congregation that taught at the Kamloops school, signed an agreement on June 23rd to share its archival records with the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia. Sr. Marie Zarowny, president and board chair of the congregation, said “the organization is committed to finding the truth and would assist in any way it could.”

But I would be remiss if I didn’t include the reaction of The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), who were asked about their reaction to the Catholic Church’s involvement in the residential school scandal and issued the following statement:

The Catholic community in Canada has a decentralized structure.  Each Diocesan Bishop is autonomous in his diocese and, although relating to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, is not accountable to it.

Approximately 16 out of 70 Catholic dioceses in Canada were associated with the former Indian Residential Schools, in addition to about three dozen Catholic religious communities.  Each diocese and religious community is corporately and legally responsible for its own actions. The Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the Residential Schools, nor was the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In a brief submitted to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in November 1993, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said that “various types of abuse experienced at some residential schools have moved us to a profound examination of conscience as a Church.

And there you have it, a Pontius Pilate response to the horrific reality that was the Residential School System.

The Catholic Church — and the federal government — must be held accountable for the horrors inflicted on the Indigenous people. The Pope has been asked to meet, in Rome, with  representatives of Canada’s Indigenous community and to offer them an apology, I, for one, fail to see what significance such an apology could hold; however, Indigenous people have long exhibited an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness.

Featured image: Kamloops Indian Residential School.



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.