Pope Francis’s Apology to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples

As Pope Francis wraps up his week-long “pilgrimage of penance” in Canada, many are disappointed with his highly-anticipated apology for the abuses committed against Indigenous people

Pope Francis’s Apology to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples
Pope Francis and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take part in a welcoming ceremony for the Pope at Edmonton International Airport in Alberta Province, Canada, on July 24, 2022 / Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

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In the summer of 2002, World Youth Day was held in Toronto. A Catholic festival pegged as a “celebration of faith,” it saw hundreds of young people from across the world make a pilgrimage to downtown Toronto. Though I don’t identify as Catholic, I grew up attending Catholic school and so when the time came for such a big event to be held in my city for the first time, I found myself heading to Ricoh Coliseum for a talk headlined by Pope John Paul II. The excitement leading up to it was palpable. This would be just the second time a pontiff visited Canada. It would be another 20 years before Canada received its third papal visit.

Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday for a historic six-day tour which he called a “pilgrimage of penance,” focused on one theme: healing and reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous communities. This time the excitement was tempered with an air of skepticism.

His first stop was Maskwacîs, home to the former Ermineskin Residential School, which only closed its doors in 1975. One of the largest residential school sites in Canada, it was just one of several government-funded, Catholic-run residential and day schools that opened in the late 19th century. It was at this site that the Pope was expected to apologize for the atrocities committed against Indigenous Peoples in the school system.

It was difficult to look at the faces of those gathered, many of whom were old enough to have personally experienced the horrors of the residential schools. At one point, an Indigenous woman, Si Pih Ko, spontaneously stood before the pontiff and sang in Cree, her voice powerful but clearly anguished. At another, the pope was gifted a sacred, ceremonial headdress by an Ermineskin Chief, which he donned for several minutes over his papal garb—an image which has since gone viral.

News cameras broadcasting a live feed of the event captured the sound of applause from the audience upon hearing the pontiff utter those words “I am sorry.” And again when he said “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous people.” 

For many, the idea of a papal visit was monumental, as evidenced by the thousands of free tickets that were instantly collected online (a chunk of which were to later reappear for sale).  The “Walking Together” tour comes just four months after the Pope issued an initial apology to an audience made of First Nation, Inuit and Métis delegates who traveled to Rome to meet him. In the Vatican he said “I feel … sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, and the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.” 

But the hope soon gave way to doubt, as a quick scan on social media over the last week revealed. For many Indigenous people who were tracking the Pope’s visit, the apology still fell short of the specific calls to action outlined in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report. The TRC (which includes residential schools survivors, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit representatives and the federal government and the church bodies responsible for the residential school system) was created with the mandate to make more broadly known the legacy of residential schools and “advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” 

One activist called the trip an “erasure tour.” Another was offended with the speech’s opening—a greeting to the Canadian government, not the victims or their survivors. As with the apology from the Vatican, the majority of the criticism pointed to the words the pontiff chose to use—and those he didn’t. It was discouraging to see the pope once again forgo the opportunity to assume responsibility not just for evil committed by individuals, but for the Catholic Church’s institutional support of the residential schools policy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who attended the highly-anticipated apology, later released a standard, disingenuous statement acknowledging the apology but maintaining there is still a long way to go on the path to reconciliation. Trudeau—whose government has been reported as spending CAD$58 million in the last two years alone fighting litigations brought by Indigenous people (more than double to defense budget)—is accustomed to doling out insincere apologies while failing to take concrete actions. Canadians have enjoyed the reputation of being the polite, peace-loving counterparts to their neighbors in the South. Of course, every so often this facade cracks, revealing this myth for what it is. 

On May 27 of last year, I listened with horror to the announcement that the unmarked graves of about 215 children were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. As shock and grief swept across the nation and beyond, many hoped this would precipitate an overdue moment of reckoning. (In fact, many more such sites are expected to be discovered). At the university I attend in Toronto, activists toppled a statue of the school’s namesake, Egerton Ryerson, who is often referred to as the architect of Canada’s residential school system. It is estimated that some 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend these schools, in order to (as then-Indian Affairs Minister Duncan Scott once said) “kill the Indian in the child.” Along with the cultural erasure and rampant physical, sexual and psychological abuse, more than 6,000 children died in the institutions, although we will likely never know the true number because the records are withheld or were destroyed. Entire families and communities were ripped apart, and we are only starting to understand the effects of the intergenerational trauma this has all caused. A plaque has replaced Ryerson’s statue, which reads in part:

“Egerton Ryerson is widely known for his contributions to Ontario’s public educational system. As Chief Superintendent of Education, Ryerson’s recommendations were instrumental in the design and implementation of the Indian Residential School System. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded that the assimilation amounted to cultural genocide.” 

In spite of a formal request made by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (the First Nations government which represents the area where last year’s discovery was made), the Pope did not visit the unmarked graves in Kamloops. Instead, the itinerary included a stop at Sanctuaire Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, said to be the oldest Catholic pilgrimage site in North America. During his mass, demonstrators unfurled a sign which read “Rescind the Doctrine,” a reference to the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th century papal bull which made it “legal” for Christian Europeans to take Indigenous lands worldwide. Generations of Indigenous leaders have asked, in no unclear terms, for this Church to formally rescind the doctrine which basically justified colonization and the brutal mechanisms that made it possible. 

The last residential school may have closed in 1996, but the sins of the past live on. Across Canada, many Indigenous communities still lack basic necessities. Entire generations in some communities have grown up under various degrees of drinking water advisories. According to Statistics Canada, prior to the pandemic, the unemployment rate among Indigenous people was 1.8 times the rate among non-Indigenous people, an issue that was only exacerbated by COVID-19. They are drastically over-represented in the country’s incarceration rates. The highest rates of suicide are reported among First Nation, Métis and Inuit youth —three times higher than the rate among non-Indigenous people. From 2001 to 2015, the homicide rate for Indigenous women in Canada was almost six times as high as the homicide rate for other women, prompting a renewed call for investigations into the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. And elsewhere, land defenders continue to face up to state-endorsed mining companies who are threatening their lands and livelihoods—and facing violence, intimidation and criminalization in the process. 

In considering the different responses from those who have weighed in on the papal apology, it’s easy for me to see why it has been met with broad skepticism. What good is hearing “I’m sorry” if there are no meaningful actions to follow?

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