Pope Francis’s apology needs to come with accountability from the Catholic church

When the Catholic entities that ran Indian residential schools commit to meaningful reparations, the need for yet further apologies will end

Pope Francis
✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | OCTOBER 30, 2021 • Current Events

THE CANADIAN CONFERENCE OF CATHOLIC BISHOPS announced Wednesday the Pope’s acceptance of their invitation to visit Canada “on a pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation.” In December, a delegation of Indigenous survivors, elders, knowledge keepers and youth will travel to the Vatican to discuss the details.

The arrival to Canada of Pope Francis will fulfill the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #58:  “We call upon 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 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.”

There have been a number of apologies from the Catholic entities that ran Indian residential schools in Canada. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate delivered theirs at Lac Ste. Anne in July of 1991, “for the part we played in … cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious imperialism,” and in 1997 the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement of regret for the pain and suffering caused by the residential school system. In 2000, the Great Jubilee, Pope John Paul II appealed for forgiveness in a summary confession of over 100 crimes, including the abuse of children in Catholic-run institutions. Along the way there have also been low-profile, local apologies, delivered by bishops and archbishops from the pulpit.

But there’s never been an apology from the Pope, delivered to Indigenous people, on Canadian soil. When the residential school lawsuits began in the 1990s, Canadian bishops adverted to the decentralized and even anarchic nature of the business: there is no “Canadian Catholic Church,” they asserted, and therefore no ecclesiastical leader or entity to litigate. Yet when the Indigenous delegation arrives at the Vatican this December, they will tread upon the soil of an exclusive and sovereign dominion, a landlocked theocracy presided over by the Vicar of Christ and placed beyond secular authority by the 1929 Lateran Treaty with Mussolini.

The former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, travelled to Rome for a 2009 private audience with Pope Benedict. At the time he considered the Pope’s expression of regret a significant and sufficient achievement, but now says his words were taken out of context and misconstrued. Now Fontaine thinks it’s a different time and an apology on Canadian soil, in an Indigenous community, is required.

Survivors of physical and sexual abuses suffered in the Indian residential schools have told me that apologies help. Apologies affirm in public what former students have long known in private — that they were vulnerable and defenceless children, abused by those in whose care they were entrusted. As crimes of the worst kind imaginable, these abuses cry out for acknowledgement, justice, and remedy. Apologies can have restorative power, when done properly.

And then there’s doing it badly. There have been apologies of various kinds for 30 years now. There has also been a court-supervised settlement with 48 Catholic entities, called the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. As I’ve written before, lawyers for the Catholic entities took advantage of loopholes in the agreement that they themselves negotiated, in order to minimize their legal and financial burdens. Their reparation scheme funnelled dollars and church efforts into existing business lines, underwriting church and membership building initiatives they would have undertaken anyway.

You may have noticed that there are no calls for further Anglican, Presbyterian or United church apologies. These denominations committed to truth, healing and reconciliation, while the Catholic leadership has thus far committed to the cardinal priorities of asset management and pew-filling. The church’s insistence on regarding a global crisis of child abuse and coverups as an internal pastoral matter, a call to restore those abused to their diminished flock, is not a serious acceptance of responsibility.

The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement failed to hold the Catholic entities to account because it was larded with the assumption that an honour system would suffice, and that the Catholic entities could be counted upon to do what is right. This trust was abused, by an institution that has earned a reputation precisely for the abuse of trust. So by all means an apology, but also accountability, not only to law but to the standards of ordinary human decency. When the Catholic entities commit to meaningful reparations and make genuine efforts that help to restore Indigenous land, cultures, languages, ceremonies and governance, the need for yet further apologies will end. ⌾

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will help ensure Canadians never forget the past

Phil Fontaine in October 1990The worst thing that could happen would be for the Canadian public to forget this painful history

WAYNE K. SPEAR | SEPTEMBER 30, 2021 • CURRENT EVENTS

In October 1990, Canadians were shaken — much as they were by the recent discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools — when Phil Fontaine opened the nation’s eyes to the horrors that took place at those schools and the long-lasting trauma that resulted.

Yet Fontaine later told me that the events of that month happened by accident. He’d said during a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations that it was necessary for the organization “to deal with an issue that was like a plague in our communities … residential schools, and the abuse that went into those schools.”

On the way home, a Globe and Mail reporter who’d been at the meeting approached Fontaine at the airport. They had a brief conversation, and the next day Fontaine woke to discover his words were front-page news.

Fontaine would be interviewed about his experiences many more times. His interview with Barbara Frum, on Oct. 30, 1990, is perhaps the most notable. Many who were in an Indian residential school system have told me that Fontaine’s willingness to speak out on the issue gave them the courage to do the same.

No one was talking publicly about the Indian residential school system before then. Hardly anyone, beyond those who were there, knew anything about it. Between 1907 and 1940, there had been a handful of newspaper articles about the schools, with headlines like Canada Deserts Her Children and Schools Aid White Plague — Startling Death Rolls Revealed Among Indians — Absolute Inattention to the Bare Necessities of Health. Yet if Canadians were shocked at the time, they soon got over it, and quickly forgot.

In 1990, the stories returned, this time told by Indigenous people themselves. By the end of the decade, Canadians who wished to could find a good many books on the residential schools. In the early-to-mid 2000s, residential school lawsuits were commonplace news. Then came the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. And after this, the prime minister apologized and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was set up.

While the current federal government has squandered much of the goodwill it amassed early in its mandate, with promises of a new and sunny relationship with Canada’s First Nations, not everything is bad. Canada, for example, is unlikely to return to the era of universal ignorance about residential schools.

Anyone who dismisses the substantial achievement this represents disrespects the residential school survivors who for years dedicated themselves to a campaign of public education. As a result of their efforts, there is a consensus now that the experiences of those who attended residential schools ought to be heard and respected, and that those who did not survive the schools should somehow be recognized.

There is, of course, more work to be done. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) provided direction with its 94 calls to action. Among them is call to action number 80, which urged the government to designate a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The selection of Sept. 30 reflects the fact that this was the time of year when children were transported to the schools, in many instances hundreds and even thousands of kilometres from their homes.

The TRC envisioned the day as a statutory holiday and a time for reflection — and while this will not be the case for most Canadians (most provinces have not designated it as a stat holiday), the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will evolve over time.

The worst thing that could happen would be for the Canadian public to forget this painful history. The formal designation of a day of observance and commemoration will serve the cause of remembrance, and that in itself is a good thing.

A Journey Among the First Nations

MEDIA REPORTING of the Assembly of First Nations’ Annual General Assembly, in Whitehorse, focused on the theme of intertribal warfare. The question topmost on every reporter’s jotting pad, it seemed, was this: Could the Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak recruit enough First Nations chiefs to establish a parallel organization — the “National Treaty Alliance”? Never you mind that Nepinak himself downplayed the talk of schism: the Indian wars, of every kind, draw attention.

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