A group of First Nations residential school survivors urges Pope Francis to acknowledge that many students forced to attend the institutions were buried in unmarked graves – and their parents were never told or allowed to bring their children home to bury them.
The newly revived National Circle of Indian Residential School Survivors submitted the application Wednesday to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) for consideration.
He also asked the 85-year-old pontiff to acknowledge that the church failed to report the abusers to authorities and, in some cases, simply transferred them to other schools.
The demands are part of a proposed apology that survivors say they want to hear from Pope Francis in Canada. Last month, the Vatican announced that the pope would visit Canada July 24-30, stopping in Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit.
“There’s a lot of denial that we’re finding graves across the country,” said survivor Ted Quewezance, co-chair of the group.
“It’s about telling the truth… We based our decision on this ground penetrating radar, on the ancients, the oral history of the ancients and we never expected to find anything, but we did. Have done.”
The Keeseekoose First Nation community of Quewezance, 285 kilometers northeast of Regina, announced last February that its ground-penetrating radar survey had found 54 potential burial sites near two of the residential schools that operated in or close to the community.
These institutions, Fort Pelly and St. Philip’s, were run by the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1895 to 1969.
The discovery was made after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community sparked a wave of searches for burial sites last year when they reported what are believed to be more than 200 unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Survivors call for new papal apology
Pope Francis apologized to First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates gathered at the Vatican on April 1 for the deplorable conduct of some Church members in residential schools, but the apology did not go far enough for some survivors.
“We thought it would be best for the Holy Father to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church as a whole and not just for the misconduct of certain individuals,” said Kenneth Young, residential school survivor, former lawyer and Manitoba Regional Leader in the Assembly. First Nations of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.
The group wants the pope to accept responsibility for the extensive damage caused by the Church’s pursuit – along with the Canadian government – of a policy of assimilation through residential schools.
Members of the group say they are only willing to accept an apology that acknowledges that church practices were designed to prohibit indigenous children from speaking their language, practicing their culture and knowing their rights.
They say it must also take into account the physical, psychological, spiritual and sexual abuse suffered by children.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forced to attend government-funded residential schools run by Catholic, Anglican, and other churches between the 1870s and 1997.
The Catholic Church ran most of the institutions.
Young said he initially received a pushback from the bishops on the group’s suggested apology, but they were more receptive to the latest version.
In a statement released to CBC News, the CCCB said bishops and survivors continue to meet to discuss Pope Francis’ statement on residential schools.
“This information has been shared with Vatican officials,” a CCCB spokesperson said.
“The Pope, reflective and deeply moved by his interaction with the survivors as well as the insights provided, will ultimately determine the specific words he shares while in Canada.”
The TRC called on the pope to issue an apology on Canadian soil a year after the release of his 2015 final report.
It recommended that the pope specifically apologize to survivors, their families, and their communities for the Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in the Catholic boarding schools.
Requests for repairs
The circle of survivors also calls on the church to commit to reparation and restitution.
It also demands that the pope renounce the Doctrine of Discovery – age-old papal edicts used to justify the seizure of Indigenous lands in the Americas by colonial powers.
The doctrine is based on two papal bulls issued in 1455 and 1493 which gave the church’s blessing to explorers’ claims to Africa and the Americas.
It states that all lands held by indigenous peoples are zero ground – Latin for “no one’s land”.
Abandoning the doctrine would fulfill the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 49, which urges all religious and faith groups to repudiate the concepts used to justify European sovereignty over indigenous lands and peoples.
If the pope’s statement to Canada doesn’t include the elements survivors are looking for, Young said, it might not be widely accepted.
“People will watch and review what he says and the reaction will be very quick,” Young said.
Quewezance said an excuse is an excuse.
“As long as [Pope Francis] apologize, that’s all that’s on my mind,” Quewezance said.
“All the other survivors have different thoughts and we have to respect the survivors.”