Weighing the Worth of the Bishops’ Apology

Although the Residential Schools have come under attack over the years, the discovery of the graves of children in and around the former schools in May of 2021 resulted in a new and urgent call for apologies from the various churches involved in them. Almost immediately after the graves were discovered, the Presbyterian, Anglican and United Churches issued apologies for their part in a system that changed the lives of so many Indigenous children across the country. However, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) was late to offer any indication of sorrow or sadness for the Catholic Church’s involvement in this school system that lasted for decades in Canada. Instead, the bishops issued the following statement which I included in my June 28/2021 story on the topic:

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 of the 70 Catholic dioceses in Canada were associated with the former Indian Residential Schools, as were 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.

It should be noted that in a brief submitted to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples as early as 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.”

Shubenacadie Residential School

Shubenacadie Residential School, Nova Scotia. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

On September 24th, the CCCB finally offered — with no ifs, ands or buts — an “unequivocal” apology for its part in the Residential Schools system, timed, it would seem, to coincide with National Truth and Reconciliation Day on September 30. The bishops acknowledged their part in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed in 2008 under Justice Murray Sinclair to investigate said system, called a “cultural genocide.” The Commission noted that:

…children were not allowed to speak their own languages and in testimonies to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, survivors recounted sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

The Canadian bishops’ statement read:

[W]e acknowledge the suffering experienced in Canadian Residential Schools. Many Catholic religious communities and dioceses participated in this system. We acknowledge the grave abuses, physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural and sexual. As well, the Bishops “commit ourselves to continue accompanying you, the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples of this land. Standing in respect of your resiliency, strength and wisdom, we look forward to listening to and learning from you as we walk in solidarity.

The Bishops are also promising a:

…nation-wide collective financial commitment to support healing and reconciliation for residential school survivors, their families and communities.

With a target of $30 million over up to five years, this will include initiatives in every region of the country. The commitment will be achieved at the local level, with parishes across Canada being encouraged to participate and amplify the effort.

Which sounds good, but it’s worth considering the Church’s track record on fulfilling such promises to Indigenous peoples.


When its “profound examination of conscience as a Church” finally ended in 2006 with the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), the Church agreed to pay survivors $29 million in cash, to make its “best efforts” to fundraise another $25 million and to provide $25 million in “in-kind services,” intended to support healing and reconciliation and to help survivors robbed of a family life as well as of their language and traditions during their time in residential schools.

But the Church has spent over a decade avoiding paying survivors.

Documents from a 2015 court case show the Catholic Church dipped into the $29 million fund to pay “$2.7 million in legal fees — as well as millions more in administration, defaulted loans and other expenses.”

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

As for the $25 million in “in-kind” services, a ledger obtained by the CBC in October showed that large sums of money spent on what was supposed to be the healing and reconciliation plan actually went toward:

…bible-study programs, placement of priests and nuns in remote northern communities, services under the frequently used label of “religiosity” and religious-document translation.

In other words, toward a continuation of the residential schools’ mission to “evangelize and convert Indigenous people.” (The spending included $256,800 to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate St. Peter’s Province for community work and presence in two Mi ‘kmaq communities in Nova Scotia.)

And in August, a Globe and Mail investigation revealed that the Catholic Church — the “largest charitable organization in Canada with 3,446 registered church charities, mostly dioceses and parishes” — had received a total of $886 million in donations in 2019, making it worth some $4.1 billion. But its fundraising campaign in support of Residential School survivors had raised only $3.7 million of the promised $25 million.

The Catholic Church was unique among the signatory churches to the 2006 agreement in its efforts to avoid paying victims. All the other denominations paid their shares without issues. Catholics from parishes across the country who contributed to the fund intended for distribution to Residential School survivors must be somewhat concerned — and perhaps downright disgusted — with the way their church made use of their hard-earned dollars.

They may also find it difficult to accept at face value the bishops’ latest promise to help survivors.

As for the intended recipients of the bishops’ apology, some Indigenous people expressed thanks and a sense of relief that they had finally been heard, but some are skeptical. RoseAnne Archibald, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief, told reporters:

Due to previous financial promises by the church not being met, [I’m] sure the Bishops will understand First Nations skepticism and mistrust about their commitments.


Every Child Matters

Design by Andy Everson, K’ómoks First Nation, B.C.

Not all provinces declared National Truth and Reconciliation Day a statutory holiday, although, across Canada, orange was the color of the day and media — newspapers, radio and TV — marked the day on which Canadians were asked to reflect on the atrocities committed against Indigenous people and to insist that the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission be adopted, given it’s been six years since they were drafted.

I found it hopeful that many of the Indigenous Canadians I saw interviewed for Truth and Reconciliation Day can imagine a future in which relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are, in the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “based on principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect, and shared responsibility for maintaining those relationships into the future.”

As for the Catholic Church, it has another “atrocity” to answer for, that revealed in a recent report from an independent commission in France that contends that as many as 330,000 children had been abused over the past 70 years — 216,000 of them by approximately 3,000 priests, the others by “church figures such as scout leaders or camp counselors.”

It’s hard to imagine that the Catholic Church will survive more such revelations, yet there are people who will say, “We still consider ourselves Catholic,” despite everything that has transpired over decades.

If there is Day of Judgement, not only the abusers but all those who turned a blind eye to what was happening — from fellow priests, to bishops to Popes, to parishioners who cared only that such abusers were removed from their parishes and didn’t worry about them preying on neighboring children — will answer for their actions or lack thereof.



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.