Following a historic apology first delivered in Rome on April 1, Pope Francis has told Indigenous survivors of residential schools in Canada that he is “deeply sorry” and asked for their forgiveness for the “wrong” done. by Christians against Indigenous peoples across this country.
But while it’s a welcome step, is it just a theatrical display of the Catholic Church’s empire? Or is the pope truly ashamed and sad for the sins the Church has committed against indigenous children?
Is the pope really ashamed and sad for the sins the Church has committed against indigenous children?
It has been seven years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called on the leader of the Catholic Church to apologize for operating a network of what were essentially concentration camps for children.
And the pope did not seek to minimize the gravity of this age of darkness; he accurately called it “deplorable evil”.
It is despicable and unfathomable that Indigenous children have been torn from their families and forced to live in homes of horrors where murder, death, abuse and neglect have been inflicted on them by an institution that claims to represent a loving God.
“I think back to the stories you told of how assimilation policies ended up systematically marginalizing Indigenous peoples, how also, through the residential school system, your languages and cultures were denigrated and suppressed,” he said. said the pope on Monday. He sat on an all-white raised platform inside the circular outdoor structure of the traditional powwow arbor, with chiefs from the four Maskwaci nations of central Alberta seated next to him .
Even as he canceled or postponed other plans, the 85-year-old pope, who uses a wheelchair, seemed mostly determined to keep that commitment. And indeed, thousands of survivors and their families traveled from across Canada and the United States to hear his words. The crowd was very quiet – as if the survivors were holding their breath after generations of waiting for that day of reckoning.
The intergenerational effects of the atrocities committed against the First Peoples of this land endure. They manifest as brokenness, adversity, suicide, impoverishment, inequality and widespread systemic racism. Survivors told me how their residential schools “broke their spirits”.
Winston Northwest, a 63-year-old Maskwacis Indian Day School survivor, made a trip to visit his father’s grave days before the papal appearance. Winston was 11 when, he says, his father, an Ermineskin Cree Nation residential school survivor, got drunk to death. Winston thinks boarding school killed his father. Sobbing, Winston described how he told his father it was finally time to heal, forgive and hopefully move on.
Other survivors heal in different ways. Some ignored the pope; others celebrated his visit as a new beginning.
And that’s really a beginning, not an end. This journey of truth, healing and reconciliation is a deeply personal experience for each survivor.
On Monday, I was less than 10 feet from the pontiff when he stopped to pray on the Ermineskin Cree Nation sidewalk in front of where the boarding school once stood. There was even an electric fence that once ran around the perimeter of the school to keep the children inside – as if they were animals.
And yet, I wondered if Pope Francis really gets it. If he really understands the seriousness of what happened, the genocide that was committed against children. When he prayed, was he still praying for forgiveness? Was he asking forgiveness for past sins?
And yet, I wondered if Pope Francis really understood. If he really grasps the gravity of what happened.
Because if his apologies seemed sincere, he left aside the sexual abuse that has been widely denounced in these establishments. Survivors contacted me immediately, wondering if there had been some kind of mistake. Without true and full recognition of the role of the Catholic Church in this abuse — all abuses — the “deplorable evil” of residential schools will persist. And it also means recognizing the institutional the guilt of the church, not just the guilt of its members.
“Despite the historic apology, the Holy Father’s statement left a deep hole in recognizing the church’s full role in the residential school system by blaming individual church members,” said Murray Sinclair, the former chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wrote in response.
The church also says it is committed to taking concrete steps to address outstanding grievances. When, where and how will it start? There are allegations that the perpetrators are still alive and have never been prosecuted or convicted for their crimes of abuse.
Will Pope Francis follow through on demands from Inuit leaders and survivors to persecute fugitive priest Johannes Rivoire, for example, who has been accused of sexually abusing Inuit children? Rivoire, who denies the allegations, has a Canadian arrest warrant for him and is hiding in a retirement home run by the Catholic Church in France.
If he is serious about his apology, Pope Francis should also rescind the genocidal doctrine of Discovery.
This doctrine has been around for centuries, ever since Pope Alexander VI created a series of papal bulls to justify the seizure of indigenous lands in the name of Christianity. European settlers referred to indigenous territories as “terra nullius”, or vacant land. And the legacy of land dispossession through violence lives on.
Finally, the pope’s “penitential pilgrimage” is a good first step. This trip is heavy, and the burden just got a little lighter. But this dark heritage of the church, and the horrifying reality of these schools, is more than a historical footnote. Apologies are good, but justice is better. And the victims of Canadian residential schools deserve both, even after the pontiff returns to Rome.