Reaction to the recent discovery of 215 dead children at a B.C. residential school has been mixed from the Catholic church. The Vatican has not apologized, but things are different in the north.
As a body, the Roman Catholic Church - which administered most of Canada’s residential schools, including several in Manitoba and Saskatchewan – issued a short statement about the program’s past June 6.
In a statement on the official verified Twitter account of Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church voiced sympathy for people affected by residential schools, but stopped short of offering an apology for the church’s role in the system and refrained from making commitments to help people affected.
“I join the Canadian bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatised by shocking [sic] discovery of the remains of two hundred and fifteen children, pupils at the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” reads the statement.
“These difficult times are a strong call for everyone to turn away from the colonial model and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.”
Within northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, that sentiment was countered by the church’s own archdiocese and Flin Flon’s own Catholic priest.
During his June 6 service, Father Paul Bringleson of St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church delivered a scathing homily in which he criticized several church policies including the residential school system, offering an apology to victims and their families as well as those driven away from the church through scandal.
“To Indigenous people here in my care, in my past, throughout our country, I, Paul Bringleson, a priest of the most holy Roman Catholic Church, apologize. We failed you. It’s time for us to be truly accountable with that and for that,” Bringleson said.
“For those who have left the church over this, I’m sorry. For those who stayed, I’m sorry. We need you. The church is better off with you than without you. We don’t give up on a family member. Don’t give up on the gospel. Even though we’ve had a piss-poor way of representing Christ over many years in our country, there are those of us who want to stay, to be a part of your life in whatever way we can, in whatever way you want to.”
Bringleson added that the Church must now seek to help people harmed by that system and by other Catholic policy, but only if those affected choose to come to the church for guidance.
“It is not for us to tell Indigenous peoples, ‘It’s time to move on.’ You don’t tell a victim when their suffering is over. You sit with that pain and despite every human instinct, you have to respond to it and to say something to all the what-about-isms - shut your mouth and just listen,” said the father.
“As a good friend of mine is always fond of saying, ‘Paul, you don’t know shit from Shinola,’ and I don’t. But I know enough to recognize a hurting people. And I know enough now to shut my mouth and listen, to call upon my brothers in the priesthood to do the same.”
Bringleson’s homily was published on the website of national publication MacLean’s June 8.
A statement issued by the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, which oversees around 50 Catholic churches in northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, offered an outright apology to families and people affected by residential schools and offered to cooperate with identifying additional victims of the residential school program.
“On behalf of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, I express my deep sorrow at the news of the 215 children found on the grounds of the previous Kamloops Residential School. This news has made fresh again the pain for all affected by the legacy of residential schools,” reads the letter, published by Archbishop Murray Chatlain.
“There has been an outflowing of emotion: anger, dismay, grief, sadness. I have experienced all these emotions in myself as well. I want to express my deep apology and profound condolences to all the families and communities affected.”
The archdiocese operated seven residential schools, including the Sturgeon Landing Residential School and its successor, the Guy Indian Residential School at Clearwater Lake. Other residential schools in the north were non-denominational, like the Churchill Vocational Centre, or run by groups with other religious affiliations - the Norway House Residential School was operated by the Methodist Missionary Society and, later, the Home Missions of the United Church, while the Lac La Ronge Residential School was overseen by Anglicans.
“In the history of our archdiocese, we had seven residential schools. We will do all we can to provide what information we have on our gravesites. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), our records were turned over to the TRC. We commit to help with identifying the children that passed at our own residential schools.”
“The most important thing now is to pray and listen.”
According to a report published in the Thompson Citizen in 2014, the archdiocese was obligated to pay $1 million over five years and provide $1.6 million in in-kind services over 10 years as part of the federal Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.
“To members of my own parish and parishes that are listening to this, hold your priest accountable. Challenge your bishop to talk and to listen. Knights of Columbus, Catholic Women’s League of Canada, write those letters that you’re always so famous for writing about every other blessed social justice issue on the map,” said Bringleson in his June 6 homily.
“Write your church a letter asking for your priests and bishops to be present to Indigenous peoples without reservation - and ask them not to write another letter. Ask them to leave their office and get out onto the street and sit amongst the people whose hearts we have broken, whose dignity we have robbed and whose lives we have betrayed. Only then, only then, will healing truly have a chance of being the reconciliation that the gospel of Jesus Christ demands of us.”