Tribes, Catholics react to apology for Indigenous boarding schools in Canada

Pope Francis has been the head of the Catholic Church since 2013.

Officials and local residents have taken note of the Pope’s recent apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s Indigenous residential school system. Some view the mea culpa as a good first step, but others believe the church should do more.

As reported in the Associated Press last week, Pope Francis met with Indigenous community members and boarding school survivors in Maskwacis, near Edmonton, Canada, on July 25, to issue his formal apology.

“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said.

His words have been met with varied reactions. On July 27, National Indian Health Board Chairman William Smith released a statement on the visit.

“The National Indian Health Board recognizes the important step taken by Pope Francis in issuing a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the implementation of Canada’s Indian residential school system— a system patterned after the Indian mission and boarding schools created by the Indian Boarding School Policy of the United States,” said Smith. “As a public health organization, NIHB has stressed the legacy of unresolved historical and intergenerational trauma as foundational to the many health disparities and negative health outcomes experienced by American Indians and Alaska Natives today.”

Smith cited the adoption of the Boarding School Healing Resolution by NIHB back in February, which recalls the “devastating history and use of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny as political and religious justification for genocidal policies against American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

“The resulting U.S. Indian Boarding School Policy produced an alliance between the U.S. government and both Catholic, Protestant, and other Christian and religious denominations and institutions whose sole and contracted purpose was to eradicate American Indian and Alaskan Native identity by removing children from their families and communities and enforcing assimilation through the school system,” said Smith. “In the very system where children should find nurturing and safety, Native children were instead subjected to physical, mental, spiritual, and sexual abuse.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. commented on the apology.

“The uncovering of mass graves in Canada of Native children who were once in boarding schools was truly disturbing and a horrific illustration of the country’s past treatment of its indigenous population – a history the country is now trying to atone for,” said Hoskin. “It was also a stark reminder of the painful past of anti-Indian policy from the U.S. government in the 1930s and ‘40s that stripped Native children from their homes and families to live in these schools and essentially ‘unlearn’ their culture.”

Hoskin said the history of Indian boarding schools in the State of Oklahoma was fraught with injustice.

“We know that Oklahoma was home to many such boarding schools that our Cherokee elders were forced to live in and attend, and that it was likely the single-most contributing factor for the loss of the Cherokee language,” said Hoskin. “We hope more of these boarding school sites will be studied and that the injustices will be accounted for.”

Father David Medina, pastor for St. Brigid Catholic Church in Tahlequah, called the apology significant.

“Pope Francis has apologized for the abuses against indigenous children in Canada,” said Medina. “He has taken a significant step to begin a healing process. His public statement can help to bring healing to those brothers and sisters. Indeed, the damage made to these children and their families cannot heal just with apologies, nor reestablish the dignity stolen from those children.”

Medina said he understands the Pope’s apologies will not solve the problem or “give back the dignity stolen to all those innocent children.”

“The Pope recognizes the hurting and takes responsibility by speaking the truth,” said Medina. “In other words, he accepted the real hurt made and wants to cooperate to bring healing and hope.”

A recent transfer to the area, Mary Vreeland was raised Catholic until age 20 and returned to the church 20 years ago. She shared her thoughts on the “apology tour.”

“I am appalled at the historical abuse of Indigenous people in residential schools— both in the U.S. and now, I discover, in Canada,” said Vreeland.

Vreeland said she has been reading about this history. She believes there has been “misplaced concern” over graves.

"Not one mass grave was discovered in Canada last year," she said.

Vreeland said she and other Catholics are “rightly outraged" by the behavior of those visiting Canada for the "apology tour."

“We feel misrepresented by someone traveling to represent the Catholic Church while simultaneously participating in ceremonies that conflict with the perennial teachings of Christ handed down through the Apostles,” said Vreeland. “A Pope is supposed to pass down these truths unchanged. That’s his job.”

Vreeland does not want people to forget the positive opinion many Natives had of the Catholic missionaries.

In a report from 2015, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada reported that it had identified 3,200 deaths on the Named and Unnamed registers of confirmed deaths of residential school students. In the case of 32% of these deaths, the Canadian government and these schools did not record the name of the student who died.

In regard to the NIHB Boarding School Healing Resolution, Smith said the inclusion of the word “healing” is deliberate.

“Healing is essential for the reclamation of identities that residential schools were designed to steal and eradicate, but healing can only come with the truth. And everyone involved in the history of boarding schools must be transparent in pursuing that truth," said Smith.

Smith called Francis’ apology “a welcome and promising beginning” but only a first step.

Attempts were made to contact United Keetoowah Band Chief Joe Bunch for comment but no response was returned before press time.

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