Skip to main content

Suzanne Shoush is a First Nations/Black physician with the St. Michael’s Hospital Academic Health Team. She is also the Indigenous health faculty lead for the department of family and community medicine with the University of Toronto’s Termerty Faculty of Medicine.

The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. The killing of a child at school is a horror of unimaginable proportions.

In the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 14 children were murdered in their school, Pope Francis put forth a call to action to support survivors. “There are many ways to silence young people and make them invisible. Many ways to anesthetize them, to make them keep quiet … It is up to you not to keep quiet. Even if others keep quiet … I ask you: Will you cry out?”

The loss of their lives is an absolute tragedy, and the Pope was right: We must scream for justice.

Pope Francis expresses sorrow over unmarked graves at residential school but does not answer calls for apology

Recently news broke of another school tragedy as hundreds of little bodies, some as young as three years old, were confirmed to be lying in an unmarked burial site at a Catholic “school” in Kamloops. This has re-centred the catastrophe of the Indian residential school system in our national consciousness. It is estimated that thousands of children died in the residential schools. The Catholic Church operated approximately 70 per cent of residential schools in Canada.

Abuse was rampant. Children were denied affection, love and dignity. Fear permeated the souls of our children as they watched their peers and siblings simply disappear. This was structural violence on an industrial scale, impacting hundreds of thousands of Indigenous families, including my own.

Like my own, most families of children lost in residential school know very little of what happened to our loved ones. We do not know who hurt them. We know children died en masse at these schools as a result of widespread neglect and abuse, but we do not know what happened specifically to our loved ones.

In this circumstance, however, rather than implore us to cry out, Pope Francis offered us quiet “closeness.” Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, seconded this sentiment, stating “not everything has to be a big, dramatic thing,” seemingly admonishing calls for the head of the Catholic Church to publicly apologize to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada for the harms carried out in its name as “unhelpful.”

Why silence? Why can we not know what happened to our family members? There is a real concern that crimes have been committed against children in residential schools, so why then is it possible that critical evidence can be withheld? Why not an unmitigated, clear apology from the head of the Catholic Church?

Because this wound is older than Canada itself.

The papal bulls of Terra nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery declare there was “nobody” here when Europeans arrived. Indigenous people were not only inferior, they were non-human and completely irrelevant. Canada went on to use these church-sanctioned philosophical frameworks to develop entire structures of laws, systems and policies to perpetually disenfranchise Indigenous peoples. The Indian Act of 1876 perfected the blueprint for legalized race-based oppression within a democratic state, leading to structures of marginalization that have persisted for almost 150 years.

The catastrophe of the residential schools was largely tolerated or ignored by Canadians for so long exactly because the project of devaluing Indigenous life was so successful.

Is a long shadow of these philosophies still at play? Could Catholic leadership truly feel they do not owe Indigenous peoples an apology?

At the Catholic hospital network where I work, people are hurting and crying out. The Indigenous caucus of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Advisory Panel penned an open letter to Cardinal Collins asking him to use his considerable influence to move the Catholic Church to act. This letter has been signed in support by hundreds of our colleagues in an unprecedented call to action from within.

In order to begin the long healing journey, we need to see the truth of what happened in our not so distant history. We need the Catholic Church to ask for forgiveness so we can move forward. Structural violence requires structural justice. It is not acceptable that the blame be laid only at the feet of individual orders, dioceses, nuns or priests. It is not acceptable that documents critical to our fulsome understanding of what happened be withheld under the guise of “historical inaccuracies,” especially when the founding tenet of the Catholic Church in Canada – the Doctrine of Discovery – is itself historically inaccurate.

Restitution must be made to our survivors. There must be atonement for the deaths of our children. It is time to heed the Pope’s earlier call to action, and cry out for justice.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe