‘Time for the Catholic Church to take responsibility’

Residential school survivor calls on Pope Francis to apologise for church’s role in abuse against Indigenous children.

Pairs of children's shoes and toys are seen at a memorial in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found [Dennis Owen/Reuters]

Warning: The story below contains details of child abuse

Montreal, Canada – Gerry Shingoose went to deliver a message.

But the 63-year-old said she had to wait more than 10 hours on Friday to meet with Archbishop Richard Gagnon at St Mary’s Cathedral in Winnipeg, in central Canada.

Along with other residential school survivors, she earlier had affixed 215 orange ribbons to the gate around the Roman Catholic church in honour of the 215 Indigenous children whose remains were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

Shingoose said she was willing to wait all night, though, to make a demand of the Catholic Church: take responsibility for the horrific abuse committed against Indigenous children for decades at church-run residential schools across Canada.

“I told him this is an opportune time for the Catholic Church to admit and to take responsibility and accountability,” Shingoose, who survived nine years at a residential school in the province of Saskatchewan, told Al Jazeera.

“I’m seeking justice for the 215 children and for the children yet to be found. I’m seeking justice for residential school survivors,” she said in a phone interview. “As a residential school survivor, we shared our stories over and over again – and the Catholic Church never acknowledged them or admitted what they did to us in the school.”

Kamloops discovery

Shingoose’s meeting just over a week after Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said it had uncovered the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of the Kamloops residential school after conducting a ground-penetrating radar search. Some of the children were as young as three.

The discovery in Canada’s western province has caused pain and renewed trauma for Indigenous people across the country, especially residential school survivors, their families, and their communities.

Gerry Shingoose was forced to attend a residential school for nine years [Courtesy Gerry Shingoose]

The Government of Canada, as well as the Catholic Church, which operated most of the schools, are facing mounting pressure to acknowledge the full extent of the crimes committed at the institutions, to help First Nations uncover other mass burial sites, and to pay reparations.

Between the 1870s and 1990s, more than 150,000 First Nation, Metis and Inuit children were forcibly separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools, which aimed to assimilate them into Canadian society.

The institutions were rife with abuse and more than 4,000 children are believed to have died there, mostly from disease, which spread rapidly in the overcrowded and unsafe buildings.

Indigenous community leaders have said there is little doubt that more unmarked graves exist.

United Nations experts on Friday also urged Canada and the Catholic Church to conduct “prompt and thorough” investigations into the deaths, including forensic examination of the remains, and work to identify and register the missing children.

“The judiciary should conduct criminal investigations into all suspicious death and allegations of torture and sexual violence against children hosted in residential schools, and prosecute and sanction the perpetrators and concealers who may still be alive,” they also said.

‘Horrific abuse’

Shingoose, a member of the Bear Clan from Tootinaowaziibeeng Treaty Reserve in western Manitoba, attended Muscowequan Residential School in the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan from 1962 to 1971. Muscowequan First Nation identified at least 35 graves at that residential school, CTV News recently reported, and leaders believe more may exist at the site.

“I experienced horrific abuse in the school for nine years: emotionally, mentally, physically and sexually,” said Shingoose, telling Al Jazeera that in addition to an apology from Pope Francis, she wants to see charges laid against abusers and for the Catholic Church to publicly release all its records about residential schools.

Gagnon, the Winnipeg Archbishop, who is also president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a May 31 statement that “news of the recent discovery [in Kamloops] is shocking”.

“It rekindles trauma in numerous communities across this land. Honouring the dignity of the lost little ones demands that the truth be brought to light,” he said. The statement did not offer an apology or recognition of the church’s role in abuse at residential schools.

But Shingoose said her meeting with the archbishop left her feeling like she was not being listened to or taken seriously. “It almost sounded rehearsed,” she said. “It didn’t mean anything. I didn’t get any genuine feeling or any heart(felt) feeling from him.”

No apology

For years, Indigenous people have urged the churches that ran Canada’s residential schools under the overarching auspices of the federal government to acknowledge their role in the systemic abuse that occurred. But while other Christian denominations have apologised over the past decades, the Catholic Church leadership has not.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which in 2015 concluded that the residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide”, also urged the Pope to issue a public apology on Canadian soil to survivors, their families, and their communities.

In 2018, after a formal request from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the church said Pope Francis would not meet that demand. Trudeau said at the time he was “disappointed” by the decision but promised to continue pressing for a papal apology. Trudeau reiterated that on Friday, calling on the church again to apologise and release all records related to the schools.

On Sunday, Pope Francis expressed “pain” at the discovery in Kamloops – but once again did not offer the long-sought apology.

People join a memorial in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, BC, on May 31 [Dennis Owen/Reuters]

Kathleen Mahoney, a law professor at the University of Calgary, told Al Jazeera that the Canadian government as well as the church should be working with First Nations to uncover other mass burial sites across the country, in addition to turning over their records to facilitate those searches.

“The churches have impeccable records, we know that. The Catholic Church kept impeccable records – you can find what they had for lunch back in 1918, if you go through the diaries of the nuns… The Catholic Church has still not turned over all its records, which is a problem.”

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which ran the Kamloops residential school, told The Canadian Press news agency this week that it was “committed to do more” to make its records available. “We will work to draw the records of daily lives in Oblate communities, known as the Codex Historicus, together and make them available in a more accessible format,” the order said.

‘True history’

Trudeau and several federal government ministers have said in recent days that they remain committed to supporting Indigenous communities in their search for missing children. Ottawa also said its 2019 budget provided $28m ($33.8m Canadian) over three years to address the TRC’s Calls to Action on deaths at the schools. Canada formally apologised for residential schools in 2008.

But Trudeau’s government also faces mounting calls to take real action to address the legacy of residential schools, including ongoing discrimination against Indigenous children across Canada – and implement the Calls to Action.

To date, only eight of 94 recommendations issued by the TRC five years ago – after a lengthy hearings process during which residential school survivors shared their experiences – have been completed, according to the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led research centre.

Meanwhile, back in Winnipeg, Shingoose said she will continue to advocate on behalf of other residential school survivors, as well as all the children who never made it home.

“The little children that are buried in the schools, on the school grounds, they have no voice, so I’m a residential school survivor and I bring that voice for them,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that she also shares her truth for her three children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

“Canada needs to know that truth. They need to know our true history and what happened to us Indigenous children in those residential schools.”

Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

Source: Al Jazeera