Deep Dive: The painful history of the Catholic Church in Canada
Pope Francis’ highly anticipated visit to Canada begins July 24, when he will meet first with Indigenous leaders, rather than with the Canadian government or bishops. The visit is, primarily, one to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, who hope that the pope will apologize on Indigenous lands for the abuses perpetrated in Catholic-run residential schools.
In a special deep-dive episode of “Inside the Vatican,” residential school survivors, church leaders and a historian explain how and why Catholic religious orders like the Oblates of Mary Immaculate partnered with the Canadian government to operate schools that forcibly removed Indigenous children from the care of their parents—which flew in the face of Catholic teaching on the importance of the family—and aimed, as Canada’s Department of Indian affairs once put it, to “Kill the Indian; save the man.”
Phil Fontaine, one of the leading Indigenous voices in Canada and a longtime national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, recounts how being taken from his parents and abused at an Oblate-run residential school affected him. “Being separated from my family, that was the greatest injury I suffered from my 10 years in residential school,” Mr. Fontaine says. “I mean, I can talk about sexual abuse or physical abuse, too. Yes, I experienced those. But being away from my family was probably the most traumatic.”
Mr. Fontaine and other survivors began making their stories of residential school public in the 1980s and ’90s, including in an interview Mr. Fontaine gave on Canadian television in 1990, when he was the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. His interview came just hours after he had told a group of senior church officials about the abuses he suffered at Fort Alexander, an Oblate-run residential school in Manitoba. “When we came out in public about our experience, we laid bare the soul of the country,” Mr. Fontaine says, “and the picture that emerged was not a nice one.”
Pope Francis’ highly anticipated visit to Canada begins July 24, when the pope will meet first with Indigenous leaders, rather than with the Canadian government or bishops.
Soon after, in 1991, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate issued an unprecedented apology, not only for the abuses that some Oblates committed in the schools but for the existence of the entire school system. “We apologize for the existence of the schools themselves,” leadership of the order wrote in a statement, “recognizing that the biggest abuse was not what happened in the schools, but that the schools themselves happened.”
So how did the Oblates get involved in running schools that they would later admit should never have existed?
The first residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada were established by the Indian Act in 1876, which, at least on paper, would fulfill the government’s treaty obligations to Indigenous People by establishing schools for them. The government quickly partnered with the Oblates, who at the time had a decades-long relationship with Indigenous people. As missionaries from France to Canada, the Oblates “adapted ourselves to the way of life of the First Nations,” Ken Thorson, O.M.I., the superior of the Lacombe Province of the Oblates in Canada, explains. “It would’ve been an itinerant mission style. The priests and brothers would live with and offer catechesis [and] education to [the Indigenous people] in their summer and winter camps across the plains of Canada.”
But it wasn’t just longstanding relationships with Indigenous People that the Oblates brought to the table: Their theology was tangled up in imperialism, which made it easy for them to justify partnering with the Canadian government’s project of assimilation. “It was a theology that saw salvation as being possible only through the Roman Catholic Church,” Father Thorson says. “I would say there was an approach that saw Catholicism as superior and that the approach to mission was one of imposition.”
“I mean, I can talk about sexual abouse or physical abuse, too. Yes, I experienced those. But being away from my family was probably the most traumatic.”
Kathleen Holscher, an associate professor and endowed chair in Roman Catholic studies at the University of New Mexico, who specializes in the history of settler colonialism in the United States, explained it this way: “A lot of these priests and also sisters who would have been running missions to native people in the 19th century were coming from Europe, and they brought a strong sense with them that to live a Christian life, one had to live a quote-unquote ‘civilized’ life. One had to be married the right way. One had to raise one’s children the right way.”
But disentangling imperialism from evangelization was a challenge, both for the Oblate missionaries and for the Catholic Church more broadly. “I think in the same way the Oblates struggled with it, the hierarchy struggled with it,” Father Thorson says.
“When we’re coming to grips with our sin, it seems we never go there easily.” Dr. Holscher added. “One of the things that you’ve seen in the Canadian context is a lot of transferring blame. So you have a diocese saying, ‘Well, we didn’t have anything to do with it because it was the religious orders.’ And then you have the Canadian bishops saying, ‘Well, you know, it’s not appropriate for us to make a blanket statement because it was all of these different individual orders.’”
And even the Oblates’ apology didn’t make waves. While Phil Fontaine acknowledges that the apology was “the honorable thing to do,” “it wasn’t widely known,” he says. “It largely went unnoticed, and people forgot about it.”
“I would say there was an approach that saw Catholicism as superior and that the approach to mission was one of imposition.”
Other churches began to apologize around the time of the Oblates’ apology in 1991 as well, Mr. Fontaine recalled, but it would be 17 more years before the Canadian government would offer a public apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada, and 30 before the Canadian bishops would apologize as a full body. (Some Canadian bishops had previously apologized for abuses in the schools in their regions.)
Much had happened in Canada’s reckoning with the residential schools in the intervening three decades. First, in the 1980s and ’90s, around 86,000 residential school survivors brought lawsuits for abuses committed at the schools. After years of litigation, in 2006 the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was reached, which paid two billion Canadian dollars in compensation to survivors and provided additional funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. It also called for a full-scale investigation of what happened in the schools. Out of that came the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which worked from 2008 to 2015 to uncover abusive practices in the schools by hearing testimony from survivors, gathering documents and developing a list of 94 calls to action that would help bring healing to survivors.
One of those calls was for a papal apology on the Indigenous lands where the abuses were committed.
It was something the Canadian bishops, who had been cooperating to an extent with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were already working on. In 2009, the bishops arranged for an Indigenous delegation, led by Phil Fontaine, to meet with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. Mr. Fontaine’s testimony was powerful, recalled Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton.
“While the past must never be forgotten, our destiny lies in building a future with enduring foundations, the cornerstone of which must be forgiveness,” Mr. Fontaine can be heard saying on a recording from the meeting.
“While the past must never be forgotten, our destiny lies in building a future with enduring foundations, the cornerstone of which must be forgiveness.”
Pope Benedict XVI at that time “spoke what he called words of regret,” Archbishop Smith says. “Many people saw that as the apology, heard it as the apology, were satisfied with that,” but others were not. And, once again, communication about the pope’s meeting with the delegation was lacking. “If you talked to people not long afterward in the Indigenous communities, even in our parishes, [they] weren’t even aware that it happened,” the archbishop says.
Six years later, the 94 calls to action were published, and another six years after that, in 2021, news of the discovery of the unmarked graves—said to contain the remains of at least 215 children—at the site of Kamloops Indian Residential School ripped across the nation.
The unmarked graves were not news to the church nor to the religious orders that ran the schools nor to the Indigenous people who had always known that some children had never returned from school. But the pain of the discovery revealed just how much healing was still needed. So, in 2021, the Canadian bishops finally issued their apology as a body, and they announced the visit of another delegation to Rome, this time to Pope Francis.
Archbishop Smith recalls the visit: “He [the pope] spent in the space of a few days, four hours with the various delegates, just listening and listening. That’s all he did.” On the last day, the pope spoke: “For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart, I am very sorry, and I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”
“My belief is that it wasn’t a question of a few bad apples; it was systemic, and the brokenness of the schools came from the sin of the system, and this is what we need to acknowledge.”
For Phil Fontaine, though, who was also present at this meeting, the most important thing the pope gave was not the apology but a promise to visit Canada, where he is expected to finally apologize in the very place where the abuse happened.
Then there is the question of wording. In Rome, Pope Francis apologized for “the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church.” It was a “bad apples” approach, rather than an apology for the entire system of residential schools. Father Thorson, the superior of the Missionary Oblates’ Lacombe province, says he hopes that the pope’s apology “will put to rest the question of whether or not the schools should have happened.”
“My belief is that it wasn’t a question of a few bad apples; it was systemic, and the brokenness of the schools came from the sin of the system, and this is what we need to acknowledge,” Father Thorson says. “And my hope is that Pope Francis’ words somehow speak to that.”
For Archbishop Smith of Edmonton, his hopes for the apology are simpler, based on the many listening sessions with Indigenous People that he has participated in through the Truth and Reconciliation process: “What makes for a good apology—and I’m reflecting back what I’ve heard from the Indigenous themselves—[is]: ‘We just need our experience validated.’ They will often say to me: ‘We do not need you to heal us. We can do that ourselves, thank you very much. But part of that process is to have others validate that what we went through was in fact real.’ And an apology that acknowledges that really gets to the heart of what they’re looking for.”
For Mr. Fontaine, Pope Francis’ apology raises the same question as the Oblates’ apology in 1991, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008 and the other apologies that have piled up over the decades: “It’s not the end of the story; it’s the beginning. There will be a long, difficult journey ahead of us,” Mr. Fontaine says. “It begins by making sure that people understand what the church means by that [apology]. They will have to tell us what they’re prepared to do, in concrete measures, in walking this journey together.”
Ricardo da Silva, S.J., and Maggi Van Dorn contributed to this report.