TORONTO -- A prominent Canadian arm of the Catholic Church has apologized for the first time for the horrors that occurred in residential schools it ran for the federal government for more than a century.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a statement Friday acknowledging what it described as "grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community" at the schools, as well as the residential school system's "suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality."

"Along with those Catholic entities which were directly involved in the operation of the schools and which have already offered their own heartfelt apologies, we, the Catholic Bishops of Canada, express our profound remorse and apologize unequivocally," the statement reads.

In addition, the bishops referenced a previously announced upcoming meeting between Pope Francis, residential school survivors and other Indigenous knowledge keepers in December. The bishops said that this meeting would be aimed at determining how the Pope "can support our common desire to renew relationships and walk together along the path of hope in the coming years."

The apology is an important step toward reconciliation, says Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, but adds that it falls short.

"The Truth and Reconciliation Committee's calls to action require that the Pope come to Canada to apologize," she told CTV News Channel on Friday. "It's very important that he come here and not that delegations of First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples have to travel to Rome. That's an unnecessary step."

While the apology acknowledges the abuses suffered by Indigenous children, Blackstock is skeptical about whether or not the lessons from the past have been taken on board.

"It's not clear to me that there's been a real deliberate learning within the church about the wrongdoing, even after the schools closed," she said, citing, "their evasiveness in accepting responsibility, their legal maneuvering so they didn't have to meet their compensation obligations."

As part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the church initially agreed to raise $25 million for survivors. In the end, less than $4 million was paid out.

Blackstock added that the Government of Canada needs to step up and address the ongoing problems currently plaguing Indigenous communities across the country.

There were 139 residential schools in the federally funded program, which operated in Canada between the late 19th century and 1996. Many of them were run by the Catholic Church.

Thousands of the 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children who attended these schools died with some estimates placing the number of deaths as high as 15,000. Hundreds of unmarked graves were found at the sites of several former residential schools earlier this year; in some cases the number of children buried at the sites is believed to be several times higher than any official death toll.

While individual priests and bishops have apologized for the church's role in running the schools, there had never been an official apology from the Canadian Catholic hierarchy until Friday. The Vatican has also never formally apologized, despite calls to do so.

The Catholic Church has been criticized, including by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for failing to provide full access to records related to residential schools. The bishops said in their statement that they will "continue the work of providing documentation or records that will assist in the memorialization of those buried in unmarked graves."

The CCCB said that in addition to existing initiatives to promote healing and reconciliation, it will launch new fundraising initiatives in every region of the country "to support initiatives discerned locally with Indigenous partners."

The bishops also pledged to enter "a new era of reconciliation" by inviting residential school survivors and other Indigenous people to share their stories with Canadian Catholics.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will be marked for the first time on Sept. 30.


If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here