On Thursday 27 May, the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc people announced the disturbing discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 Indigenous Canadian children at a former residential school in southern British Columbia. Preliminary findings, expected in mid-June, should reveal more information about the presumedly undocumented deaths of former pupils at Kamloops Indian Residential School – some as young as three years old. This finding would add to the overall total recorded death toll of 4,100 identified children who died while attending residential schools – set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches (in the case of Kamloops, the Catholic Church). Most of the recorded deaths were due to neglect, unsanitary living conditions and maltreatment. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 2015 found that the countrywide residential school system (RSS) was responsible for committing cultural genocide. The RSS was established for the official purpose of educating Indigenous children, however, it also aimed to sever family and cultural ties and assimilate the children into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living within white Canadian society. On 11 June 2008, the Canadian government formally apologised for the damage done by the schools, which were attended by over 150,000 children between the 1880s and 1990s. However, the effects thereof remain, and many victims and descendants demand further justice. Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were rampant within these institutions, as was forced labour. However, out of the more than 38,000 claims of sexual and physical abuse submitted to the independent adjudication process from the 1980s onwards, less than fifty have resulted in convictions. Furthermore, the intergenerational consequences of compromised families, cycles of trauma, the loss of language, culture, traditions and wellbeing, and the ongoing disparities between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canadian society is immeasurable. 

From a Christian perspective, in addition to the Government issuing a formal apology, some churches involved began to acknowledge their responsibility in creating an education system designed to “kill the Indian in the child” toward the end of the 20th Century. In 1986, the United Church stated: “We imposed our civilisation as a condition of accepting the gospel. We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.” However, the Roman Catholic Church has been criticised for refusing to fully acknowledge its crimes. Although the Canadian Bishops expressed deep regret for “the pain, suffering and alienation that so many experienced”, moving them to “profound examination of conscience as a Church”, many are dissatisfied with the Pope’s failure to personally respond and for the Church’s limited action. Some argue that in addition to concerns about their reputation, another possible reason for the Catholic Church’s reluctance is the fear of the repercussions that may follow a formal apology, including exacerbating the already significant legal and financial burden carried globally regarding abuse cases. Some argue that this stance is tragic not only for the victims but for the message of Christianity. As followers of Christ, we know that we are His ambassadors, His representatives, imploring people to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20-21). Therefore, abuse by those in spiritual authority perverts the image of God, who speaks strongly against such abuse and violence (Prov. 28:16; Jer 22:17; Ez 34:1-10). Christian Psychologist Dr Diane Langberg reminds us that God calls His Church to care for His lambs, not protect our institutions or God’s name by covering up sin or crime. “We honour God by caring for the wounded and by dragging sin to the light and calling it by its right name.” Confronted by a legacy that has failed to represent God accurately and faithfully, the Church has the opportunity to seek redemption that comes through genuine repentance and His work of restoration. Christians need to take seriously the responsibility of emulating the true characteristics of God through our words, actions, and character (Eph. 4:1-3, 5:1-2, 5:15-17; 1 Pet 5:1-5; Matt 16:24; Col 3:1-17). There is a heavy responsibility laid on leaders, but it is important for all followers of Christ to test their actions and attitudes of the heart, whether they are in line with Scripture, and be quick to repent of our sins. This situation is not unique to Canada, or the Church in Canada, similar accounts have come to light in many countries across the world. May the Church constantly seek to follow the example of their Head, Christ Jesus, and embrace any opportunity to minister to those who have suffered, particularly those who have suffered at the very hands of the Church itself. 

Please pray with us for the following:

  • For comfort and healing for all those mourning the loss of loved ones or suffering from the generational effects of the RSS
  • For all Canadians to work together to address the ills of the past, and for the Church to be at the forefront of this restoration and reconciliation process, taking responsibility for its role and repenting of its sins
  • For the global Church to accurately and faithfully represent Christ and to work to restore those who have suffered abuse from those in positions of authority within a church context


Image: REUTERS/Dennis Owen