Pope Francis said at the Angelus prayer on Sunday that he is following "with sorrow the news from Canada about the gruesome discovery of the remains of 215 children, students of the Kamloops Indian Residential Schoolin the province of British Columbia. I join the Canadian bishops and the entire Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, traumatized by this shocking news. The sad discovery heightens our awareness of the pain and suffering of the past. May the political and religious authorities of Canada continue to work with determination to shed light on this sad event and humbly engage in a path of reconciliation and healing.
These difficult times are a strong call for all of us to move away from the colonizing model and also from the ideological colonizations of today, and to walk together in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.
We commend to the Lord the souls of all the children who died in Canada's residential schools and pray for the grieving families and Native Canadian communities. Let us pray in silence.
"The Church indisputably erred in implementing a colonialist government policy that resulted in the devastation of children, families and communities." So publicly apologized on June 2 by Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver, British Columbia.
In the city of Kamloops, 350 km northwest of Vancouver, the remains of about 215 unmarked and "unburied" indigenous people have been discovered buried next to the former Kamloops Residential School, a Canadian government institution founded in 1890 and closed in 1978, and from its founding until 1969 run by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Archbishop Miller, whose diocese included Kamloops until 1945, promised to do everything possible to try to find out the identities of the minors buried there.
Local natives discovered what they say are human remains using a small penetrating radar, technology now literally at their fingertips. Many natives already knew or suspected that deceased youths had been buried not only there but also in other of the 130 Canadian boarding schools, now closed, so often without warning family members or recording the cases.
Kamloops Bishop Joseph Nguyen (who as a young man escaped from Vietnam by boat and took refuge in Canada) said, "No words of sorrow could describe this horrific discovery". The president of the Conference of Bishops and Archbishop of Winnipeg Richard Gagnon expressed his great sorrow on behalf of the Canadian bishops (they number more than 80) and called for the truth to come out.
Already on April 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI had personally apologized, in a private audience at the Vatican, to a group of Canadian indigenous chiefs when they visited him in Rome, for the "deplorable" treatment that indigenous wards received in Catholic-run boarding schools. (There were 73 of the 130 institutes).
Often the children were forcibly separated from their parents and taken to these boarding schools: sometimes they did not see each other for years (or ever again); they were assimilated into the dominant culture and thus lost their roots; they suffered psychological, physical and even sexual abuse.
For three decades, requests for forgiveness - also, of course, by civilian authorities, starting with the country's prime ministers - for so much tragedy have been multiplying and repeating themselves. And for cause: so many have not even been documented. It is estimated that some one hundred and fifty thousand indigenous students lived in the boarding schools set up by the federal government in the mid-19th century; the last of them were closed only at the end of the 20th century. Many of these schools were in inhospitable locations and were poorly subsidized; there could be food shortages and contagious diseases. It is not known for certain how many children died in these institutions and from what: at least 4,000 are estimated.
The discovery in Kamloops is raising awareness among the Canadian public. Attempts are going to be made to document the past better, also with grants that the federal government has just offered to indigenous people so that they can dig more about their missing.
But this awareness in this country is not a recent development. As early as 1991, the Canadian bishops and superiors of religious orders who participated in the residential schools declared: "We deeply regret the pain, suffering and alienation that so many (indigenous people) have experienced. We have listened...and we want to be part of the healing process." That same year the Oblates of Mary Immaculate included this in their very long repentance: "We ask forgiveness for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious imperialism that was part of the mentality with which the people of Europe first encountered Aboriginal peoples and which has consistently been hidden in the way the Native peoples of Canada have been treated by civil authorities and churches."
The process of reconciliation in recent years has included hundreds of meetings between Christians and indigenous people in Canada to try to heal the wounds. (It is possible that half of Canada's indigenous people are Catholic, and many others are Christian. Out of nearly 40 million people, almost 2 million are indigenous).
Raymond de Souza, a well-known priest and journalist, makes reference to the National Post to John Paul II, who in the Bull Incarnationis mysterium (November 29, 1998) called for "the purification of memoryThe Pope said: "We cannot fail to recognize the faults committed by those who have borne and continue to bear the name of Christian". Also to his homily at St. Peter's on March 12, 2000: "We cannot but acknowledge the unfaithfulness to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren".
In this dramatic setting, it is perhaps worth remembering that many Canadians pray to the Patroness of the Western Hemisphere, the indigenous Virgin of Guadalupe. And to St. Kateri (Catherine) Tekakwitha, who died in 1680 in Montreal at the age of 24; here [I write from Montreal] are her remains. Her Algonquin mother, a Christian, was kidnapped by the Iroquois and married to a Mohawk chief. At the age of 4 Kateri lost her parents during a smallpox epidemic that left her half blind. At 11 she was introduced to the faith and at 20 she was baptized by Jesuit missionaries. She had to suffer great abuse for her faith, being rejected by her relatives; so in 1677 she fled on foot more than 300 km. until she reached a Christian village. She was very penitent and very devoted to the Eucharist. She was canonized in October 2012, at the end of the Benedictine pontificate.
Note from the author: On May 14, 1976, my sister Monica, 24 years old, was kidnapped by the military in Buenos Aires. We were never told what happened to her.