Warning: The story below contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
Montreal, Quebec, Canada – When Pope Francis visits Canada next week, Ghislain Picard says he hopes the needs of residential school survivors will be the top priority for the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
The pope is expected to apologise once more for the role members of the church played in abuses committed against Indigenous children at the forced-assimilation institutions, which operated across Canada for decades beginning in the late 1800s.
The discoveries of unmarked graves at several former residential school sites over the past year make the pope’s trip that much more critical, said Picard, the Quebec-Labrador regional chief at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). “There are thousands of suspected [unmarked grave] sites,” he told Al Jazeera. “So I think the pope’s visit has taken on even more importance.”
In Quebec, a predominantly French-speaking and Catholic province that will be the second stop on the pope’s July 24-29 tour, the visit also presents an opportunity to increase awareness of the horrors of residential schools and dispel long-held myths, Picard said.
For decades, some have argued the residential school system in Quebec – which has its own distinct history of forced British rule and Catholic Church dominance over public life – was not “as bad” as in the rest of the country because the province had fewer residential schools, and they opened later than other institutions and generally operated for less time.
But that’s an argument Picard rejected as “unacceptable”, as the schools’ devastating effects still rippled across multiple generations of Indigenous families and communities – and continue to be felt today. “Even if it was one person, compared to maybe 1,000 people, the impact was felt and continues to be felt,” he said.
“This is really a dark chapter in Canadian history that must be known … It’s an education that’s worth supporting and I think the pope’s visit will certainly add to our efforts.”
Pope Francis’s tour of Canada will begin on July 24 in Edmonton, Alberta, where he plans to meet with residential school survivors before travelling to Quebec City, the provincial capital, for two days of events. He will end his trip in the northern territory of Nunavut on July 29.
The visit comes just months after the pope apologised to an Indigenous delegation that had travelled to Rome, asking for forgiveness for the “deplorable conduct” of members of the Catholic Church at residential schools.
More than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Metis children were forced to attend the schools from the late 1800s until the 1990s. The institutions, which were set up and funded by the Canadian government and run by churches, were rife with abuse. Thousands of children are believed to have died.
A federal inquiry, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), concluded in 2015 that the residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide”. Among dozens of calls to action (PDF), the TRC had urged the pope to deliver an apology in Canada, where the harms were committed.
Views on the pope’s apology in Rome, and his upcoming visit to Canada, differ among residential school survivors and Indigenous community members, with some saying it is an important step and others rejecting it as too little, too late.
Michele Audette, senior adviser on reconciliation at Universite Laval in Quebec City, said peoples’ views on the pope’s visit are extremely personal and varied, but stressed that the apology was one of the TRC’s calls to action.
“The people who lived through the mistreatment and the trauma, and all those who are still alive today, some are still in survival mode while others have taken a path in which they are saying, ‘Come and look me in the eyes, and say what you have to say to me in my territory where these things happened,’” Audette told Al Jazeera.
“‘And send a message around the world, a symbolic gesture, a gesture in which your word will now need to be honoured by many other religious communities, by your religious communities. How will they bring this apology to life, on a daily basis, from your visit here?’”
‘A Quebec history’
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, a class-action settlement approved in 2006 between the government, churches and residential school survivors, officially recognised 139 residential schools.
Of those, 12 were in Quebec. Many of the institutions opened in the 1950s and 1960s – later than those in other provinces and territories – as part of a push to colonise the mid-north part of Quebec that also involved relocating Indigenous communities and creating reserves. “The construction of schools … was also driven by pressure from local Catholic and Anglican church officials and, in some cases, in response to parental objections to the practice of sending their children to even more distant residential schools,” the TRC said (PDF).
But the model for residential schools goes back many years earlier – and is linked to Quebec City, one of the oldest settlements in North America. “The first boarding school for Aboriginal people in what is now Canada was established in the early seventeenth century near the French trading post at the future site of Quebec City,” the TRC found in its final report (PDF).
The TRC said that Roman Catholic school, which aimed to “civilise” and “Christianise” Indigenous boys, was a failure, however, as parents did not want to send their children and many who were enrolled ran away. The British conquest of the territory in the 1760s then forced the idea of residential schools to “lay dormant” until the early 1800s, when institutions began to open in other places.
In the middle part of that century, Quebec Catholic priests, nuns and other missionaries were sent to the Canadian prairies and western regions to advance colonisation there, explained Catherine Larochelle, a history professor at Universite de Montreal who specialises in colonialism.
Even before the federal government got involved in residential schools, missionaries from Quebec – a province where historically, and until this day, most people identify as Catholics – set up schools in which to evangelise Indigenous children out west, Larochelle told Al Jazeera. Though they were largely “unsuccessful”, these early institutions served as the basis upon which Ottawa later built its nationwide residential school system, she said.
“There were a lot of French-Canadian [religious] women … they were the ones who made the residential schools work,” said Larochelle. At the same time, “Quebec’s Catholic population financed the start of the residential schools through donations to Catholic charities,” she said, adding that through the turn of the 20th century, the general population was aware and supportive of the effort.
All this, Larochelle has written, means that “the history of Canadian genocide is a Quebec history” – though it remains largely unknown in the province.
“There is obviously a history in Quebec of domination by the English over the French-Canadian population,” said Larochelle, but digging into other histories “in which French Canadians were not necessarily the dominated ones can only help us make peace with the past.”
A spokesman for Quebec’s Indigenous affairs minister told Al Jazeera that the province remains committed to supporting Indigenous people in getting the assistance they need during their search for answers and healing over residential schools.
Mathieu Durocher pointed to the Quebec and Canadian governments’ appointment in June 2021 of a special liaison officer to help Indigenous communities access various resources as one example. Quebec last month also unveiled a $141-million-Canadian-dollar ($108m), five-year plan to support First Nations and Inuit, including through the preservation of Indigenous languages and culture.
“The history of residential schools is a dark period. Quebec, Canada and the entire world were shocked by the discoveries that began in Kamloops with the 215 unmarked graves … We cannot exclude that it could also happen in Quebec. We must put everything in place to support communities and survivors with their wishes,” Durocher said in an email.
But the government of right-wing Quebec Premier Francois Legault has been widely criticised for refusing to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in the province, despite multiple reports (PDF) detailing how anti-Indigenous biases permeate state institutions, including in healthcare.
“We recognise firstly that there is racism in Quebec, and we must fight against it,” said Durocher. “Beyond the debate on the semantics around the term ‘systemic racism’, a term that does not enjoy a consensus in Quebec, we must put in place concrete actions to fight racism in all its forms. That is exactly what we are doing.”
Yet calls for the government to acknowledge and work to end systemic racism have grown louder in recent years, particularly when an Indigenous woman named Joyce Echaquan died at a Quebec hospital in 2020 after staff hurled racist insults at her. Her family later said that systemic racism killed the Atikamekw mother of seven.
“The colonial roots didn’t pass over or go around Quebec to get from Ontario to New Brunswick; Unfortunately, they cross here, too,” said Audette, who is from the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam. She added that “very deep biases” persist, but that she takes strength from the people who are taking action to change things.
“It’s clear that the government’s positions don’t help our efforts to fight against racism, don’t help our efforts in terms of education,” said the AFN’s Picard, who also criticised the fact that Quebec has refused to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“But we’re not going to give up. We’ll continue to at least try to influence the Quebec population, especially on the eve of the official call of the provincial election.”