June 7 (UPI) — Pope Francis expressed sorrow on Sunday over the remains of 215 children found buried late last month at the site of a former Canadian residential school, but did not apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the treatment of Indigenous children at those institutions despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging him to do so.
Before those in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, Francis called the remains’ discovery at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia “shocking” and said he joins others in the Catholic Church in “expressing my closeness to the Canadian people” who have been traumatized by this revelation.
“This sad discovery further heightens awareness of the pain and sufferings of the past,” he said. “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.”
The pope’s speech came more than a week after the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation announced it had found the remains, with the help of a ground-penetrating radar specialist, buried at the school grounds in Kamloops, which is about 217 miles northeast of Vancouver.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School was operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969 when it was taken over by the Canadian government before closing in 1978.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission report published in 2015 stated the 139 residential schools operated from the 1880s with a policy that “can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.'” The final school shuttered its doors in 1996.
“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources,” the commission said. “If every Aboriginal person had been ‘absorbed into the body politic,’ there would be no reserves, no treaties and no Aboriginal rights.”
The commission estimates that 150,000 Indigenous students attended these schools, including the 4,100 the commission has identified who died, though it is believed that number is as high as 6,000. The Kamloops school, for instance, by the commission records, had a death toll of only 51 prior to last month’s discovery.
The discovery of the remains has shocked Canada and renewed calls for the pope to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church.
On Friday, Trudeau told reporters during a press conference that he is disappointed as a Catholic that Francis has failed to apologize and that the church has not provided the Canadian government with residential school records, including those on child deaths under its care.
“We expect the church to step up and take responsibility for its role in this,” he said.
Trudeau said he urged the pope during a visit to the Vatican a few years ago to move forward with the church’s apology, restitution and asking for forgiveness.
“We’re still seeing resistance from the church,” he said.
The pope’s response was met with sharp criticism from members of the New Democratic Party, with Nahanni Fontaine, an indigenous member of the legislative assembly of Manitoba, calling it “utterly divorced in analysis, responsibility or care for the fundamental role your institution, priests and nuns played in atrocities against Indigenous children.”
“We deserve an apology for the thousands who never came home and the thousands who were stolen and abused,” she said in a tweet. “And the damage done to all of us.”
“We deserve an apology on ALL of it,” she said.
Charlie Angus, a NDP member of parliament, said the pope’s words “ring hollow in Canada.”
“Sorrow is not an admission of culpability. Anyone can feel sad over the deaths of children,” he said in a statement. “He needs to take responsibility for the policies that caused those deaths. It is time to apologize, turn over the documents and pay the money.”
Jane Philpott, the former federal health minister and dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, said truth and reconciliation require more than “closeness.”
“With all due respect [Pope Francis], a response to these horrific acts requires an apology and a commitment to release all documents,” she said on Twitter. “I’m a Protestant Christian and my faith includes recognizing my failures and saying I’m sorry.”
Meanwhile, in Toronto at Ryerson University, a statue of Egerton Ryerson was torn down Sunday evening following a protest over his role in the establishment of the residential school system.
Ryerson University President Mohamed Lachemi said the statue was pulled down by a truck about an hour after the end of a peaceful protest that was attended by more than 1,000 people.
“The statue will not be restored or replaced,” he said in a statement