Canadian churches respond to the discovery of unmarked graves at former Indian residential schools

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The discovery of 215 unmarked graves buried on the grounds of a former Roman Catholic residential school for indigenous children has prompted calls for an investigation by church leaders in British Columbia.

Last week the unmarked graves of the children were unearthed at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. From 1890 to 1969 the school was run by a Roman Catholic order, the Oblates of Mary, and was part of a federal government program that educated over 150,000 native children between 1883 and 1996. 

Critics have charged the children were subject to abuse and neglect in the residential schools and their native cultures and languages oppressed. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate the residential school system in 2015 said the institutions fostered “cultural genocide”.

The cause of death of the children found at the Kamloops school is unknown, but the TRC estimates approximately 4000 children died of disease, accident or natural causes while they were students at the schools.  The Canadian government has formally apologized and paid billions of dollars in compensation to the survivors of residential schools. In 1993 the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Most Rev. Michael Peers apologized for the Anglican Church’s role in the school system.

The Anglican diocese of Cariboo in British Columbia ceased operations on December 31, 2001 after a BC court held it was 60 per cent liable for claims of abuse made by former students, and the government of Canada was 40 per cent liable in damage suits brought by former students of the Anglican-run St George’s Indian Residential School in Lytton, B.C.

After the diocese was dissolved the parishes were gathered in the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior, which in 2016 was renamed the Territory of the People and given diocesan status within the national church.

The Catholic Church has yet to issue an apology for abuse committed at its schools but has been liable for damages. On 31 May 2021 the Canadian Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement saying: “As we see ever more clearly the pain and suffering of the past, the Bishops of Canada pledge to continue walking side by side with Indigenous Peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future.”

“The pain that such news causes reminds us of our ongoing need to bring to light every tragic situation that occurred in residential schools run by the Church,” Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver said in a statement. “The passage of time does not erase the suffering that touches the Indigenous communities affected, and we pledge to do whatever we can to heal that suffering.”

The bishop of the Territory of the People, the Rt. Rev. Lincoln McKoen, on 28 May 2021 released a pastoral letter stating “Genocide cannot be undone or healed overnight. Our repentance as Anglicans for our part in this terrible legacy has not stopped: Repentance is a process, not a single event. The dissolution of the former Diocese of Cariboo and its evolution from APCI into the Territory of the People was only a beginning.”

We “will continue to commit ourselves to the process of healing and reconciliation. This will involve continued change for many of us and we must not be afraid to become better than what we are now.”

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