Residential school apology must be followed with action, survivors say

Survivors and Indigenous leaders are weighing in on an apology from Catholic bishops for the church’s involvement in the residential school system.

The bishops said the system suppressed Indigenous people’s way of living and they acknowledged the grave abuses that were committed by some members of the Catholic community.

And while some feel the apology is an important step towards reconciliation, they say words must be followed with action.

“Unless the Pope apologizes everything is meaningless and unless they start taking real steps to help us towards healing nothing will change,” said Gerald McIvor, who identifies as a victim not a survivor because of what he lived through as a child.

For four years he attended the residential school run by the Roman Catholic Church in his home community of Sandy Bay First Nation.

“The abuse, the denial of our identity, our languages, our culture … that never leaves you because the sad thing about it is everything came home with you, came home with the students,” McIvor said.

On Friday, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops apologized for the church’s role in the residential school system but McIvor feels the apology will do little to help people still living with the ongoing trauma and legacy of suffering.

Many did not return home. It’s estimated thousands died while attending residential schools, a reality brought once again to the country’s attention earlier this year with the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada.

In their statement of apology, the bishops expressed their profound remorse and apologized unequivocally to Indigenous people.

“We acknowledge the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural and sexual,” reads a portion of the apology.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said it’s been a long time coming and hopes the apology is followed with action.

“I think it’s a significant announcement, I think it’s something that will lay forward a path to move on,” Dumas said.

Raymond Frogner, head of archives for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s never meant to be the ultimate solution, it’s another step forward in acknowledgment, in recognition, in accepting responsibility for the history of the residential schools,” Frogner said. “Residential schools run by the Catholic orders had the highest death rates, had significant hardship in them in comparison with others.”

At a sacred healing camp that arose on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building in response to the discovery of unmarked graves, organizer Aaliyah Leach expressed skepticism about the apology.

“I’m almost wondering was it because it was expected or because it was genuine,” Leach said. “One thing in the apology that I had read is that they stand by us in our resilience and strength but a lot of that resilience and strength has been demonstrated through surviving legitimate genocide.”

“There’s so much more that needs to be done.”

The bishops committed to provide documentation or records on unmarked graves and have pledged $30 million to support healing and reconciliation initiatives

For their part the bishops said the $30 million fundraising goal will take up to five years to complete and will be achieved by fundraising at the local level with parishes across Canada encouraged to participate.

In the apology the bishops pointed to a delegation of Indigenous survivors, elders and youth who will meet with Pope Francis in December in Rome.