The Church’s Dark History of Child Abuse and Infanticide in Canadian Residential Schools

Joyce Hunter, right, whose brother Charlie Hunter died at St. Anne’s Residential School in 1974, and Stephanie Scott, a staff member at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, carry a ceremonial cloth with the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools during a ceremony on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Gatineau, Que., Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. JUSTIN TANG / THE CANADIAN PRESS

In 2019, Marlene Poitras, the Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief for Alberta, said in a statement that the release of the names highlights what many have known for decades: that the loss of life as a result of the residential school system was “massive and widespread.” (https://www.thestar.com/edmonton/2019/09/30/thousands-of-indigenous-children-died-in-canadian-residential-schools-now-we-know-some-of-their-names.html)

Confirmed Indian Residental School Mass Gravesites. Source: Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada. There are definitely many more unknown graves still to be discovered at other former IRS sites.

Since that time, hundreds more children have been added to the list, but many of them may never be properly identified as their remains were recovered from anonymous, unmarked mass graves on Residential Schools’ property. Recently, 215 children’s remains were discovered in an unmarked mass burial at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated from 1890 until the late 1970s:

‘Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said on Friday that ground-penetrating radar had discovered the remains near the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated from 1890 until the late 1970s. “It’s a harsh reality and it’s our truth, it’s our history,” Chief Casimir said at a news conference. “And it’s something that we’ve always had to fight to prove. To me, it’s always been a horrible, horrible history.”

‘The remains, which Chief Casimir described as “many, many years old — decades,” included those of children as young as 3.’ (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/28/world/canada/kamloops-mass-grave-residential-schools.html)

Nuns with stolen Indigenous children outside a Catholic-run Residential School

In 2015, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called upon Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ask the Pope to apologize on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church for its involvement in Canada’s residential school system. Mulcair made the comments in an interview with CTV’s Question Period, days ahead of Harper’s trip to Vatican City. “With all of the evidence that’s now on the table, the Vatican should issue a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential schools. While the Prime Minister is with the Pope, he should simply ask him if he’s willing to issue that sort of an apology,” said Mulcair.

The request was in line with one of the recommendations of the formal Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings and recommendations, “…which called on the Pope to deliver an apology in Canada within a year of the report being issued. The TRC said the apology should resemble that of the 2010 apology issued to the Irish victims of sex abuse by priests.” Most churches involved in the residential schools have already publicly apologized through their national offices, except for the Catholic Church, according to the Legacy of Hope Foundation, whose purpose is to raise awareness about the system. (https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/mulcair-demands-pm-ask-pope-to-apologize-for-church-s-role-in-residential-schools-1.2410594)

The account below is from a 2015 article in the London Guardian about the beginning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada:

‘Sue Caribou contracts pneumonia once a year, like clockwork. The recurring illness stems from her childhood years at one of Canada’s horrific residential schools. “I was thrown into a cold shower every night, sometimes after being raped”, the frail 50-year-old indigenous mother of six said, matter-of-factly.

‘Caribou was snatched from her parents’ house in 1972 by the state-funded, church-run Indian Residential School system that brutally attempted to assimilate native children for over a century. She was only seven years old. “We had to stand like soldiers while singing the national anthem, otherwise, we would be beaten up”, she recalled.

‘Caribou said Catholic missionaries physically and sexually abused her until 1979 at the Guy Hill institution, in the east of the province of Manitoba. She said she was called a “dog”, was forced to eat rotten vegetables and was forbidden to speak her native language of Cree. “I vowed to myself that if I ever get out alive of that horrible place, I would speak up and fight for our rights”, she said.

‘Her voice and that of 150,000 other residential school pupils was finally heard across the nation this week as Canada faced one of the darkest chapters in its history. The head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up to examine the school system’s legacy, did not mince his words when he unveiled his landmark report. “Canada clearly participated in a period of cultural genocide”, declared Justice Murray Sinclair to cries and applause of survivors in Ottawa. Although prime minister Stephen Harper apologized for the school system in 2008, his government has always denied that it was a form of genocide.’ (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/06/canada-dark-of-history-residential-schools)

Nehiyaw (Cree) legal scholar Tamara Starblanket argues that Canada must be held accountable for crimes of genocide.

The National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) produced a supplementary report dedicated to the issue of Canada’s genocide. Its most powerful statement reads:

Legally speaking, this genocide consists of a composite wrongful act that triggers the responsibility of the Canadian state under international law. Canada has breached its international obligations through a series of actions and omissions taken as a whole, and this breach will persist as long as genocidal acts continue to occur and destructive policies are maintained. Under international law, Canada has a duty to redress the harm it caused and to provide restitution, compensation and satisfaction to Indigenous peoples.

Beverly Jacobs, Acting Dean and Associate Professor, Law, University of Windsor, writes: “I have watched and felt the aftermath of this genocide. I’ve felt it all my life and I know my parents and grandparents felt it too. My grandmother went to a residential school and didn’t talk about it until she was sick and dying. She told my aunt that she saw a child being buried beside the laneway to the Mohawk Institute, also known as the Mush Hole, in Brantford, Ont. This pain and trauma has been passed down from generation to generation. (The Conversation, University of Windsor)

“As I reflect on the recent and horrific news about the discovery of the bodies of 215 children at the former site of Kamloops Indian Residential School, I am reminded about the resiliency of our people. But the uncovering of the remains of children must be investigated as a crime against humanity. All entities involved in residential schools — including different levels and branches of the Canadian government and various denominations of churches — must be charged with genocide and tried at the International Criminal Court.

“Like others who have been speaking out, I want the ground-penetrating radar that was used at Kamloops Indian Residential School to be used at all other former residential school sites. What happened to Indigenous children is genocide, and the legacy of that continues through denial and inaction.”

The RCMP played a part in the Indian Residential School system, which ravaged First Nation communities for more than a century and left once-vibrant cultures to die. (https://www.yukon-news.com/news/the-rcmp-in-residential-schools/)

For those of us not directly affected by the atrocity, or directly involved in the healing effort, it is only to comply with any and all reasonable requests for acknowledgement, reparation and healing. That’s it! Moreover, the continuing dialogue requested is like that which would be found within a Truth and Reconciliation process (first utilized by Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa to address the personal, collective and social wounds left by Apartheid).

The survivors society has issued calls to action, similar to the TRC, aimed at both the federal government and the Catholic Church. That includes an acknowledgement from the Pope. When it comes to healing, Angela White says it starts with “sorry,” but true reconciliation requires an ongoing dialogue. “We should have them be accountable to providing resources, whether it’s money or counselling, for the damage that they’ve done, so the healing can continue,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to be figuring out how we’re going to heal, when they’re the ones that did the damage.” (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/survivors-faith-leaders-call-on-catholic-church-to-take-responsibility-for-residential-schools-1.6048077?__vfz=medium%3Dsharebar&fbclid=IwAR0HUoV2IlfjhyvTSkFyEsjFbewczbEbDJ94_RKfPNmlcq6StYhXEEK6Wjc)

Truth and Reconciliation process just simply works. It succeeds — beyond rationale, beyond ‘psychological’ models, in sacred and mysterious ways to ameliorate trauma and harm, and — for the collective — is the only process that does. It is a sort of ‘witnessing,’ of simply recounting your direct experience, in whatever language, narrative style, ideational or cognitive model at your disposal, regardless of ‘expert’ status, class, race, ethnicity or education, like that conducted in circle by Quakers, not subject to others’ judgment, counter or even comment.

Photograph obtained by TheTruth and Reconciliation Commission

It doesn’t even require that participants share the same worldview, epistemological framework or belief system. It’s more raw, more primitive than that. The participant simply states their experience — their Truth — it is heard, and accepted, and then the baton passes on to the next participant. Everyone else just listens — just hears it, and really hears it — without judgement or ‘rating’ of the experience recounted — whether emotional, memorial, mental ideation…whatever. Eventually, through the leavening of experience, pain, and hope, after enough rounds, when everyone has spoken, been heard, their experience accepted as real for them, reconciliation is achieved, which is a kind of consensus on what has passed, and is profoundly spiritual in nature.

This is an atrocity of shattering scale, yet discoveries to date represent only the tip of the iceberg. It is a Human Rights Abuse worthy of a U.N. Human Rights Watch Commission. An apology is the least gesture of accountability Church Residential School survivors should expect, followed by restitution and damages paid to survivors and their families. The harm from this organized program of religious terrorism, cultural and physical genocide is generational and ongoing.

If you are an Indian Residential School survivor, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1–866–925–4419

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.