WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, said Sunday that a “dramatic” step such as a formal apology from the Pope is perhaps not the best route forward in grappling with the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
“I’m sure there will be further contact with the Holy Father, but I don’t know whether seeking always some big and dramatic thing is really the way forward. I think step by step is better and working with other people,” Collins said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live.
“I think that the much more important thing is the day-to-day work, quietly, gently,” he told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.
Following a meeting with two Canadian cardinals on Saturday, Pope Francis spoke from his studio in St. Peter’s Square, saying, “May the political and religious authorities of Canada continue to collaborate with determination to shed light on that sad story and humbly commit themselves to a path of reconciliation and healing.”
But the pontiff stopped short of a formal or full apology for the church’s role in operating many residential schools in the country.
The renewed push for a formal apology comes after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia announced on May 27 the discovery of what it believes to be the remains of an estimated 215 children buried in unmarked sites on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Collins said he believes the apologies made by individual Catholic bishops in Canada were “very, very important.” The head of a conference of Catholic organizations made a formal apology in 1991. Collins also referred to a 2009 statement by Pope Benedict XVI in which he expressed “sorrow” over the suffering of residential school students.
Fight for school records
The issue of access to records also continues to be a sticking point, with Indigenous leaders and researchers noting that school records are needed to identify the remains of any children discovered. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically called Friday for any documents to be handed over. Rev. Ken Thorson, leader of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which administered the Kamloops school, said his order was working to digitize and transfer any records it had.
But Collins said Sunday that Trudeau’s remarks were “extremely unhelpful” and possibly “misinformed.”
“No one that I know of is trying to hide records. If anyone is, they shouldn’t,” Collins said, downplaying the idea that the Vatican itself has any additional records.
Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told Barton that he believed the Vatican did hold records and that they still remained to be transferred in Canada. Fontaine met in 2009 with Pope Benedict in Rome and led negotiations on the residential schools legal settlement.
Canada’s minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, Carolyn Bennett, echoed Fontaine’s view, countering Collins’s comment that he didn’t think there were hidden or unreleased records.
“That is not my understanding,” she told Barton. “I think that we still believe there are documents within the Catholic Church, and whether it’s the oblates or Vancouver diocese, people are saying that there are things that they would like to present now to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
“I also think that the cardinal needs to be part of the process,” Bennett said.
Fontaine said he believed that an apology from the Pope was still “entirely possible” and that there was likely work going on behind the scenes among Canadian bishops to make that happen.
Following the tragedy in Kamloops, he said, it’s important that Canadians finally begin to believe what Indigenous people have said about the residential school system.
“Canadians should have believed us. They had an obligation and a responsibility to do so,” Fontaine said. He called for renewed co-operation between Canadian governments, the church and the Indigenous community going forward.
“If that co-operation doesn’t work, there will be even darker days ahead.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.