By Gary Kenny
When “Shepherd One,” Pope Francis’ chartered Airbus A330-200 landed at Edmonton International Airport last July 21st, expectations among Indigenous, Inuit and Métis survivors of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential Schools were high. They hoped the head of the global Roman Catholic Church was bringing what they’d long awaited: words of remorse for the role the Church played in an assimilationist system that took an immeasurable toll on some 150,000 Indigenous children and their families.
The following morning, the 85-year-old pontiff was wheelchaired into the powwow grounds of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton. He was greeted by thousands of Indigenous people from across Canada, many of them residential school survivors.
Then, with what many in the audience felt was unmistakable remorse, Francis said, “I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonization mentality of the powers that oppressed Indigenous peoples.”
And he added, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
By most accounts this writer has read, Francis’ words were well received by, especially Catholic, survivors in the audience who still suffer the effects of the abuses inflicted by the priests, nuns, clergy and staff who ran the schools. Tears ran down the cheeks of many.
“When I realized that (The Pope had) apologized, I started to cry,” said Flora Northwest, from Samson Cree First Nation in Alberta and who attended the Ermineskin residential school. “We were in prison (in the school),” she said. She spoke candidly about always being hungry, nuns calling her and other children “savages, pagans and sinners” and being raped by a priest.
“To hear the Pope speak… (it was) as if he spoke directly to me as a survivor, and the impact was just incredible,” said Andrew Carrier of the Manitoba Métis Federation who also attended the ceremony. “It means a lot to me as a survivor and a practicing Catholic,” he added.
In its 2016 report, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools (TRC), in Call to Action 58, urged the Pope “to issue an apology to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in Catholic-run residential schools” in Canada.
More than 60 percent of the government-funded schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations. (Others were overseen and staffed by the Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches.)
All the schools operationalized what the TRC called the genocidal assimilationist policies of the federal governments of their day. Children were forbidden to speak their native languages or observe traditional spiritual practices. They were punished, sometimes severely, if they disobeyed. Assigned numbers replaced their given names.
In the blunt words of an unidentified 19th century observer of the schools, their overall objective was to “kill the Indian in the child.”
With testimony from survivors, the TRC documented hundreds of heart-wrenching stories of emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
Eleanore Sunchild, a Cree lawyer from Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan, told CBC News in May that she’s heard thousands of stories from residential school survivors she’s represented. “The particularly heinous ones involved the Roman Catholic Church,” she said.
“The Pope and the Catholic Church are ground zero for the genocide that we’ve endured,” said Eva Jewell, an Anishinaabe and research director at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Yellowhead Institute. “So much of our world and nationhood has been stolen by this particular church,” she added.
All other churches that ran residential schools apologized before the TRC began its work in 2015. The United Church offered the first of two apologies in 1986. But the Catholic Church – both the Catholic Church in Canada and the global Roman Catholic Church seated in the Vatican – has largely remained silent, until recently.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops officially apologized along with other Catholic entities in Canada for their role in the schools in September 2021, after resisting public pressure to do so for years.
Some speculate the discovery in May 2021 of 215 unmarked graves at the site of a former, and Catholic-run, residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia (and detection of hundreds more at other school sites since) prodded the Catholic Church in Canada, and now the Pope, into action.
An apology seemed the least the leader of the Roman Catholic Church could offer given the devastating legacy of the schools. And he seemed to grasp how past residential school traumas have insinuated themselves into subsequent generations leading to poverty, alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence and other dysfunctions.
But was the 1567-word apology enough to ease survivors’ persistent pain and garner the forgiveness for which Francis so humbly asked? That’s ultimately a question only Indigenous people themselves can answer.
For a great many Indigenous people in Canada, the Pope’s apology seemed to fall woefully short. Joel Abram, grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians in southern Ontario, said the apology was unsatisfactory. “I did not hear (the Pope) take responsibility for…the actions of the church itself and laying the groundwork for the assimilation.”
Among its harshest critics of the apology is Truth and Reconciliation chairperson, Justice Murray Sinclair. He said the Pope’s words left a “deep hole” in recognizing the full role the Catholic Church played in running residential schools. The Pope only emphasized the “evil committed by so many Christians,” thereby individualizing blame rather than holding the Church as an institution responsible, he said.
Added Sinclair, an Anishinaabe from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, “Catholic leaders not only enabled the Government of Canada (in setting up the residential school system) but pushed it even further in its work to commit cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples,” Sinclair said.
The Pope failed to address the institutional Church’s responsibility for “the widespread sexual abuse, torture and deaths of thousands of Indigenous children and babies” in the schools, said Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and chair in Indigenous Governance at Toronto Metropolitan University. Many of the harms inflicted at the schools had nothing to do with government policies of assimilation as the Pope seemed to imply, Palmater added.
Canada’s Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister, Marc Miller, also acknowledged “gaps” in the pontiff’s apology and noted that Francis omitted mention of sexual abuse in his list of abuses committed at Catholic-run schools.
Indigenous peoples in Canada have long demanded that the Pope take responsibility, not just for abuses committed by individual Catholic priests and religious orders, but for the Church’s complicity with assimilation and the papacy’s 15th century religious justification, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, for European colonial expansion to spread Christianity and seize Indigenous lands.
It is commonly understood that the doctrine, cemented in place by a series of papal bulls (edicts) issued in the 1400s, gave permission and moral cover to Catholic European nation-states of the day to colonize, convert and enslave Indigenous peoples and appropriate their lands.
But papal visit organizers also said the Vatican has clarified that the doctrine has “no legal or moral authority” in the church and that Francis, in his apology, condemned ideas associated with it.
“There is no Catholic Doctrine of Discovery,” wrote Canadian Catholic writer Brendan Steven in The Hub. “The claim that (the doctrine) is part of contemporary Catholic teaching is simply untrue.”
Explained Steven, the 15th century papal edicts in question were effectively rescinded in subsequent years with the issuing of other decrees that recognized the inherent dignity and liberty of Indigenous peoples and their right to their traditional lands.
Regardless of the doctrine’s Vatican status, enactment of its essential juridical tenets has continued for centuries. They are “infused” in Canada’s and other countries’ legal systems to a degree that they continue to impact national ideologies, concepts, and even common laws, said Palmater. The doctrine continues to impact Indigenous Peoples, no matter what the Vatican says about its status, she added.
Cody Groat, a member of Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, said First Nations communities’ call for the Pope’s explicit renunciation of the doctrine reflects tensions around Indigenous sovereignty within Canada. “Our systems of sovereignty and our systems of governance have been minimized through documents such as (papal bulls) … that we are not true sovereign entities,” he said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief, RoseAnne Archibald, believes the Pope and the Vatican should still revoke the doctrine outright. “I’ve always said we need a new papal bull to talk about the value and worthiness of Indigenous Peoples and cultures around the world,” she said.
Canada’s Catholic bishops now seem of the same opinion. “We resonate with the Indigenous desire to name (the bulls behind the doctrine), to say we completely distance ourselves from them,” said Archbishop Dan Bolen of Regina. Bolen added that Canadian bishops are working with the Vatican to produce a document that will provide more clarity on the issue.
The full truth about the Church’s full role in the residential school debacle, the Doctrine of Discovery and the global colonial enterprise may not be known until the Vatican opens its secret Apostolic Archives. They consist of a cavernous underground vault with 85 km of shelves containing documents spanning 12 centuries.
Vatican officials insist the archives house no relevant records. But that’s doubtful, asserted Ry Moran, former director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). There’s a “very, very high likelihood” that the Vatican has key historical records on the residential school system, as well as files “that will provide further evidence on the intentions and effectively the global strategy of colonization,” said Moran, a member of the Red River Métis.
For its part, the Government of Canada has committed to the “efficient and secure transmission of (residential school-related) documents” to the NCTR. That process is “ongoing,” the government says. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has also pledged to release “relevant documentation or records.”
The Pope also didn’t say anything about financial compensation, another of First Nation’s communities’ key demands. In 2006, facing billions in lawsuits from survivors and their descendants, Christian churches, the federal government, and survivors signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. It led to the creation of the TRC, a healing fund, and a settlement on compensation.
The Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches promptly paid their full amounts. The Catholic Church didn’t. Some experts estimate it still owes survivors more than $60 million.
Saskatoon Cree lawyer Donald Worme, who served as head counsel for the TRC, said the Vatican is worth billions and should pay its bill. “The Catholic Church has played a corporate shell game around the globe,” Worme told CBC News. “They operate hundreds, if not thousands of corporations, even in (Canada), that hold their assets.”
Other expected restitution includes the return of stolen artifacts and – the elephant in the room – stolen land. ◊