Kamloops Discovery Fuels Questions of Evangelization and Mission Backed by the State

COMMENTARY: The issue is as old as colonialism.

People gather outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School as they welcome a group of runners from the Syilx Okanagan Nation taking part in The Spirit of Syilx Unity Run, following the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried near the facility, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, on June 5, 2021.
People gather outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School as they welcome a group of runners from the Syilx Okanagan Nation taking part in The Spirit of Syilx Unity Run, following the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried near the facility, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, on June 5, 2021. (photo: Cole Burston / AFP/Getty)

Pope Francis expressed his pain and solidarity with the Indigenous peoples of Canada after the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. The discovery convulsed Canadian public life like few issues in recent years.

There had been increasing calls in the previous days for a formal papal apology, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Those who called for it found the Holy Father’s comments at the Angelus on June 6 to be inadequate.

The issue has wider relevance beyond Canada. How does the Church think today about evangelization and mission backed by state power — the story of the missions nearly everywhere, whether in Canada, Mexico, India or Brazil? If the European colonial project was morally wrong, how then to think about the fact that the vast majority of the world’s Catholics received the faith because of it? 

It is not a new issue. Perhaps the best Catholic film ever made, The Mission (1986), examined the entanglement of mission, evangelization, slavery, colonial politics and Church-state relations in 18th-century South America. In 1992, on the quincentennial of Columbus sailing to America, the issue was engaged in a public discourse largely sympathetic to Columbus. By 2020, as statues of St. Junipero Serra were being toppled in California, the public debate had shifted markedly.


Residential Schools

In the late 19th century, the federal government in Canada initiated a policy to provide education for aboriginal children — then called “Indians” and now called “Indigenous.” The education was intended to provide basic rudiments of European education and to facilitate the participation of Indigenous peoples in the wider economy. 

But the project had a more fundamental cultural purpose, which was to foster assimilation by suppressing Indian languages, clothing, hairstyles and culture. In one infamous phrase, the goal was to “kill the Indian in the child.” 

The government built boarding schools to house the Indigenous children and made it mandatory for children to attend. Some families sent their children voluntarily; many had their children taken by the state and forced to live in the “residential schools” during the school year.

While it was a government policy and the schools were built by the government, the operation of the schools was largely turned over to various Christian churches, who had the missionary energy to send teachers to remote areas. Catholic dioceses and religious orders ran about 60% of the residential schools.

The policy enjoyed widespread support across all elements of Canadian government and society. The residential schools endured well into the 1960s. The last one closed in the 1990s. As late as 1969, the formal policy of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and future prime minister Jean Chretien was to favor assimilation of Indigenous peoples.


Abuse and Apology

In the late 1980s, former students at the residential schools began telling their stories of widespread physical and sexual abuse. Of the 150,000 Indigenous children who attended the schools, some 6,000 died while there due to contagious diseases, poor medical care and neglect.

In addition to abuse, the entire premise of the residential schools was challenged as unjust. A landmark 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report detailed not only the abuse, but condemned the entire enterprise as “cultural genocide.” 

The TRC process fundamentally changed the consensus view of Canadian history in government, universities and the media, so much so that even statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister, have been removed in cities across the country. “Sir John A,” as he is commonly known, is held in lower esteem in elite circles than would be the case with comparable U.S. slaveholding founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson.

Of Canada’s 70 dioceses, 16 had residential schools in them. Those Catholic dioceses and religious orders who ran the residential schools have been engaged in decades of apologies, investigations, compensation and reconciliation activities. For example, in 1991, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who ran the Kamloops Indian Residential School said this in a four-page apology:

We apologize for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious imperialism that was part of the mentality with which the peoples of Europe first met the aboriginal peoples and which consistently has lurked behind the way the Native peoples of Canada have been treated by civil governments and by the churches.

There have been dozens of similar Catholic apologies in the three decades since. Nevertheless, among Indigenous leaders and government officials there has been a longstanding frustration that, unlike the Protestants organized in national churches, there has never been an official apology from the entire Catholic Church. 

The national conference of bishops has associated itself with the many Catholic apologies offered, as have regional assemblies of bishops. But, given that there is no entity called the “Catholic Church in Canada” — there is no Archdiocese of Canada — the issue of a Catholic apology remains outstanding in the minds of many. 


Pope Benedict

To address this desire in 2009, after years of sincere dialogue between Catholic bishops and Indigenous representatives, Pope Benedict XVI received a delegation at the Vatican that included some 40 Indigenous associations, led by Phil Fontaine, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

It was a historic moment of contrition, sorrow, reconciliation and healing. Fontaine’s address on that occasion is one of the most poignant and illuminating on the relationship of the Catholic Church to the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

At the time, it was considered the “final piece” of a nearly 20-year process of reconciliation that “closed the circle,” in the words of Fontaine. So there was confidence in all parties that a good measure of healing had taken place — apologies were offered and apologies were accepted. This was the understanding given by Indigenous statements at the time, and in Indigenous, Catholic and secular media.

The TRC, which began its work in earnest after the Benedict-Fontaine meeting, did not accept that process and its outcome. It did not reject what had been done, or question if it had been done, but judged that how and where it had been done was inadequate.

The TRC said that Pope Francis must appear in Canada within one year to offer another apology. For his part, Fontaine in 2018, without “diminishing” anything in the 2009 process, aligned himself with the TRC recommendation.

The TRC position is that a papal apology in Rome is not sufficient; it has to be in Canada. The federal government shares that position. In 2018, Pope Francis replied that he could not “personally respond” to the TRC recommendation. 

Given that Pope Francis has spoken with great frankness about sins and crimes by Catholics against Indigenous peoples in the Americas, it would seem that he would be willing to do so in regard to Canada. What is at issue is whether Pope Francis would “personally” come to Canada to say what St. John Paul has said generally, what Pope Benedict said directly to Canadian Indigenous leaders, and Pope Francis himself said very explicitly in Bolivia in 2015.


Pope Francis and the Kamloops Graves

Within days of the Kamloops discovery, the dominant media issue was not whether the Canadian federal government was negligent in identifying the unmarked graves at residential schools, but whether the Pope would apologize. After several days of intense pressure — including from the most senior levels of the federal government — Pope Francis made a lengthy statement at the Sunday Angelus, but not a formal apology:

With sorrow I follow the news from Canada about the shocking discovery of the remains of two hundred and fifteen children, pupils at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the Province of British Columbia. I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by this shocking news. This sad discovery further heightens awareness of the pain and sufferings of the past. May the political and religious authorities in Canada continue to work together with determination to shed light on this sad event and humbly commit themselves to a path of healing and reconciliation. These difficult times are a strong call for everyone to turn away from the colonial model and also from the ideological colonizations of the present, and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.

The issue of another papal apology on Canadian soil was first raised in 2015, and returned to public attention in 2018 and 2021. It will likely be raised in the future, as regardless of its contribution to Indigenous reconciliation, it is a convenient distraction for a federal government that falls far short of its promises regarding Indigenous Canadians.

For Catholics though, the entire question of the historic alliance of evangelization and state power remains current, whether in Kamloops with child graves, in California regarding St. Junipero Serra, or at Columbus Circle in Manhattan.