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Canadian residential schools: A timeline of apologies


Leading up to what will be a historic meeting between a group of Indigenous delegates and Pope Francis, hopes remain high for a formal apology. About 30 elders, knowledge-keepers and residential school survivors are set to visit Rome next week in search of an apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church’s role in operating Canada’s residential school system.

This comes after concerns over the spread of Omicron postponed the trip in December.

Despite the delay, Kevin J. White, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said he thinks a papal apology is still top of mind for members of Canada’s Indigenous communities.

“The Pope is the leader of the church, and the church played a very big role [in residential schools], especially the Catholic Church,” he told in a phone interview. “Sixty per cent of the schools here in Canada were run by the Catholic Church.

“It's a big thing so I don't think you're going to see a waning of Indigenous desire for an apology.”

From Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, White teaches in religion and Indigenous studies. He said that an apology from the Pope would have a direct impact on his family, as his father and several other relatives were institutionalized at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont.

While he acknowledges that a formal apology must be followed up with tangible action for it to be relevant, he said it’s nonetheless a fundamental first step towards reconciliation.

“I think it'll still remain a vital part of future discussions for the church and the Pope, with the Indigenous delegates,” he said.


Several apologies have been made by different church groups, politicians, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) since the late 1980s, each acknowledging their role in the operation of Indian residential schools.

Various members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) have individually apologized for their association with residential schools since 1991, including the trauma inflicted upon Indigenous community members as a result. According to the CCCB, about 16 of 70 Catholic dioceses, as well as three dozen Catholic religious communities, were associated with Indian residential schools.

“We are sorry and deeply regret the pain, suffering and alienation that so many experienced,” read a statement issued on March 15, 1991.

Since then, members of several other church groups such as the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches of Canada have each issued their own apologies for the parts they played in running these schools. Many of these statements also acknowledge the damage caused to Indigenous families whose children were forced into the system, which included stripping away their languages, culture and spirituality through assimilation, and in many cases, physical and sexual abuse.

In 2004, Giuliano Zaccardelli, RCMP commissioner at the time, delivered an apology as part of a speech during the signing of a public safety protocol between the police force and the Assembly of First Nations.

This was followed by a statement of apology to past students of Indian residential schools made by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2008. More recently, former premier of Alberta Rachel Notley, and former premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne issued their own statements apologizing to residential school survivors and Indigenous communities as a whole in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

In 2017, during a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the head of the Catholic Church to apologize for its involvement in Canada’s residential school system. But the following year, the church issued a letter stating the Pope would not deliver an apology.

Aside from the absence of a formal statement from the Pope, it’s also important to look at whether these apologies have spurred any meaningful and positive change, said White.

“I think they were genuine and heartfelt in the moment, but we can also look at the dates of them and see whether they have earnestly changed the culture and the dynamic,” he said.

Looking at the RCMP’s apology in particular, White pointed to some of the inconsistency between words spoken then, and actions seen today. This is particularly the case when looking at recent arrests of Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia protesting the Coastal GasLink pipeline in November.

“The RCMP is actively arresting Indigenous elders and knowledge-keepers out in Wet'suwet'en...who are protecting land,” he said. “So the actions don't fully match the apology in that moment because the culture of the RCMP and its relationship to Indigenous people hasn't changed.”

This reinforces the need for more than just saying sorry, said White.

“The apology is a good start, but it's got to be mirrored and matched by actual actions.” Top Stories

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