The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) holds out hope the Pope will come to Canada to apologize for Indian Residential schools, despite news Pope Francis has decided not to.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he will ask for a face to face meeting with Pope Francis so he can impress upon him the importance of this apology to bring about healing and reconciliation. He will also ask the pope to renounce the Doctrines of Discovery and terra nullius that were used to justify the colonization of Indigenous lands.
“He’s a world leader,” Bellegarde said. “People watch and listen and he has much impact. He’s a very holy man.”
“He’s a very special man, and for him to show that strong leadership on those two requests, I think would be a strong act of healing and strong act of reconciliation going forward,” he said.
Though initially disappointed to learn of the Pope’s decision not to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Call to Action #58 that he apologize on Canadian soil for the Catholic Church’s role in the schools, he noted word of Pope Francis’ decision comes in a letter from the Catholic bishops of Canada and “not directly from the pope.”
“I will continue to urge Pope Francis to come to our homelands as per TRC Call to Action #58 to meet with the peoples, with survivors and their children of the residential school system, because that in itself would be an act of healing,” he said.
News of Pope Francis decision came in a Mar. 27 letter to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada from the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), Bishop Lionel Gendron. It stressed the bishops’ commitment to reconciliation and the Pope’s encouragement that the bishops continue reaching out in “intensive pastoral work” to further healing and working to improve the conditions of First Nations peoples.
Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg said the Pope has been involved in “considerable dialogue over the last number of months,” concerning the TRC.
“He knows about the TRC, he knows the findings,” said Archbishop Gagnon, whom the CCCB put forward to speak to English-language journalists. “He has a great interest in this and he takes it very seriously, but he doesn’t feel he could personally respond to this particular Call to action #58.”
“His feeling is that reconciliation is most effectively achieved at the local level,” he said. “A lot has been done but a lot more remains to be done. That is the way the Holy Father looks at the situation.”
Over the years, many Catholic dioceses and religious communities have apologized for the Church’s role in the residential schools; a list is posted on the CCCB website. Among them are the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, who wrote in 2014: “We apologize to those who experienced sexual and physical abuse in Residential Schools under Catholic administration. We also express our apology and regret for Catholic participation in government policies that resulted in children being separated from their families, and often suppressed Aboriginal culture and language at the Residential Schools. We commit ourselves to work in the Catholic community and the wider society to challenge attitudes of racism and prejudice that continue to exist in Alberta and Canada today.”
Archbishop Gagnon noted that the Pope is not ruling out a visit in the future.
“There is always a temptation to look at the Calls to Action generally like a checklist you check off,” he said. “We look at the Calls to Action as an invitation to engagement with First Nations People and the Holy Father.”
“He has said he is open to coming to Canada and top on his priorities would be a meeting with Indigenous people,” he said, noting this was one of the main priorities of St. John Paul II’s visits to Canada.
Bellegarde welcomed continued efforts by the bishops, noting “acts of reconciliation can happen at the local level between our communities and the church” but added, “it would be a powerful act of healing and reconciliation for the pope to apologize, so we’re going to keep pushing on that request and that endeavor.”
Bellegarde noted the Pope apologized in Bolivia to Indigenous people there and in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI apologized to the Irish people for sexual abuse by priests.
While Pope Benedict XVI had also expressed sorrow to the former AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine and other First Nations leaders and residential school survivors at a meeting in the Vatican in 2009, Bellegarde said he hopes Pope Francis will build on what Pope Benedict did by apologizing in Canada.
“I think in some ways the Indigenous peoples have to develop a more assertive approach to connecting with the Vatican,” said Harry Lafond, a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and of the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council. “I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere without direct dialogue between the Pope and Indigenous people, whether it’s this year, next year or the year after, I think it has to happen.”
“I’m disappointed but I’m still hopeful,” he said. “I am afraid for the relationship.”
Though he’s aware there is some positive growth in some parts of the country in relationship-building between Indigenous communities and the church, in his area of Saskatchewan, the opposite is happening.
“The young people are not interested in any serious way to engage with the Catholic Church,” he said.
“I don’t see enough at this point of concrete action happening to make a difference. I think some of the bishops are really trying hard to come up with strategies and ways but if the young people are not responding, it’s a pretty one sided journey at this level.”
Lafond thinks the Pope’s apology and presence on Canadian soil is needed to make those efforts mutual.
“I believe the door is still open,” said Deacon Rennie Nahanee, a Squamish elder who works in the Vancouver archdiocese’s Office of Ministries and Outreach.
Nahanee said a papal apology here “would have moved more Canadians to understand about our colonial history here in Canada.”
“I think it would have swayed them to be more understanding of our Indigenous Peoples and our colonial history.”
In the meantime, Nahanee said he looks forward to seeing Indigenous peoples “talking to the bishops, telling them about their reality.
“Though it’s different throughout the country– each area has its special problems– I think with the bishops and the priests, I believe we can have a new relationship and that’s a good thing.”
There had been reports of some division among bishops on whether to invite the Pope, with Bishop Gendron raising concern last year about possible law suits at a result of a papal apology and others worried about the cost of a such a visit.
“I wouldn’t say the bishops are divided,” Gagnon said. “The bishops have agreed there needs to be reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. It’s a matter of trying to look at the whole picture.”
“Even First Nations people have different views of the Holy Father’s visit to Canada.”
“A papal trip is a complex thing, a lot of different levels are involved but the cost issue may be of some concern for some but that was not a focus of conversation, not in my experience anyways,” Archbishop Gagnon said.
There was also disappointment expressed in Ottawa.
The CCCB president Bishop Gendron and Cardinal Gerald Cyprien Lacroix of Quebec met privately in Ottawa with Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on Mar. 26 to give him advance notice of the Pope’s decision.
Asked if the Canada Summer Jobs controversy had any bearing on the Pope’s decision, Archbishop Gagnon said there was “no connection.”
“When the president met with the Prime Minister and Cardinal Lacroix, there was a number of Church concerns were that were raised, and summer jobs was an important aspect of that, but do I see any relationship between the two? No,” he said.
“The Prime Minister himself was in Rome some time ago and spoke to the Holy Father, so it was appropriate to have that connection made,” Gagnon said.
Trudeau had not only personally invited Pope Francis to Canada, he promised to fulfill all 94 of the TRCs Calls to Action, including the papal apology.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed with the Catholic Church’s decision not to apologize for their role in residential schools,” Trudeau told journalists Mar. 28. “This is something that we have to remember reconciliation is not just between government and Indigenous peoples. It’s between non-Indigenous Canadians and Indigenous peoples as well, and we will keep working with communities, keep working with individuals on the path of reconciliation because we know that taking responsibility for past mistakes and asking forgiveness is something that is core to our values as Canadians.”
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett also shared her disappointment with journalists Mar. 28, noting people had hoped the Pope would apologize in Canada because of the “apology he had made in South America.”
“I think that what we’re hearing from survivors and, and Catholics is that they, they want to continue to pressure and hope that they will change their mind and understand how important it is to be survivors here in Canada for him to do this here in Canada.
Bennett said Pope Benedict’s expressions of sorrow for the Indian Residential Schools made in 2009 to Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors was not enough.
“Sorrow is not enough,” Bennett said. “This, sorrow is never enough. One has to take responsibility for the harm that was done, not only to the children that were taken but for the families left behind and what happened to them.”
She said the government will continue to support survivors and for the apology they have said is important for their healing.
“I know that the survivors and the Catholics that have approached us are going to continue to ask and to press, put pressure in their diocese, to their priests and to, to whoever will listen that, that this is really important to them,” she said.