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 Reconciliation Scam

Ottawa isn’t going to change, ever, and Indigenous people should know it

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 24, 2017 ◈ Current Affairs

FROM THE DAY I first set my eyes on Justin Trudeau, I thought he was an inconsequential narcissist, and I said so. I would say it to his face, to both of them in fact. Yes, Trudeau is charming. But that’s a problem, not a solution. Bill Clinton taught me long ago to mistrust charisma and charm, which is to say the political art of working out what a credulous audience wants to hear and then delivering it. If you’re a sucker for a schmoozer and a charmer, consider yourself warned: you really do get what you ask for.

Phoney TrudeauA phone for a phony

A lot of people fell for the Trudeau pitch, but the shrink wrap has been off a while now and buyers’ remorse has set in. Especially for Indigenous people. Just look at the ledger: discriminatory chronic underfunding of on-reserve child and family welfare, continuing lack of clean drinking water in communities, Ottawa’s refusal of non-insured health benefits, and a list of unfulfilled promises. It’s as if the principal interest of the federal government is in creating aspirational terms it has no intention to fulfill. Gathering Strength, The Aboriginal Action Plan, Self Governance, Nation-to-Nation, Reconciliation, A New Relationship. Nice, shiny charismatic words.

The charismatic Liberal is a compassionate feminist who rolls up his shirtsleeves to serve a beloved middle class, but the real Liberal has a trust fund and a bottomless budget for self-serving propaganda, like the $212,000 cover of the 2017 budget. The charming Liberal happens to jog past your wedding, where he poses for selfies, but the real Liberal planned the stunt in advance and used your nuptials as an occasion for personal PR advancement. The charming Liberal goes to the UN, where he cringingly displays his Liberal guilt, but the real goal of this contrition is self-serving—a Canada seat on the UN Security Council. The charismatic Liberal thought it would be cool and fun to box Senator Patrick Brazeau—for charity—but the real Liberal contrived to beat up an Indian, to show the voters how tough he was.

Reconciliation is just another Liberal scam from a government that is scam-ridden. A government that claims to stand for the middle class but that has spent $400 million to hire CRA employees who harass clerks and waitresses and other low-wage, service industry workers, all while the Finance Minister fattens himself on conflicts-of-interest. A government that promised to help small businesses but didn’t, until public outrage forced them to. A government that is more interested in cutting deals with a brutal communist regime in China than it is in human rights. A government of arrogant and entitled trust-fund millionaires.

The Liberals are not going to take Canada in some bold new direction, because they can’t. No government can. A loud segment of Canadians would never accept the disruption and inconvenience, no matter how small. As bad as it is for many Indigenous people, the status quo has worked well enough for the country, which is why it’s the status quo. The Crown hasn’t solved its Indian Problem, but it has managed it. Canada is sovereign from sea to sea to sea, and it has its fingers in all of the resources, and Indigenous communities are under thumb. This isn’t ideal (total assimilation and disappearance of a distinct Indigenous population, the original government plan, was the ideal) but it’s not bad. So the politicians concentrate on political damage control, trying to contain things like the news of youth suicides, or class action lawsuits for residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. There’s no reason Canada can’t go on like this for another 500 years, and as far as I can tell, there’s no compelling reason it won’t.

That’s why I think all the Ottawa talk of reconciliation is just part of an ongoing branding effort, by governments looking for shiny words to put into expensive budgets and aspirational press releases.

Reconciliation within our families is another matter entirely. It’s meaningful and real, beautiful and necessary. So, too, reconciliation of community members. I am encouraged by every survivor who learns to express the love of a parent, love that he was denied in a residential school, to his own children. I am encouraged by the communities that cast their eyes into the pit of collective historical trauma, determined to understand and to heal. I am encouraged by open and honest conversations between ordinary Canadian citizens and Indigenous people. I believe in the power of everyday people, and not in the empty words of career politicians. We don’t need Ottawa for real reconciliation, and that’s a good thing, because Ottawa is never going to give it to us.

An interview with Justice Murray Sinclair

Wayne K. Spear in conversation with Justice Murray Sinclair | August 1, 2015
Murray Sinclair
Photo by Fred Cattroll

The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change

WKS: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an Executive Summary this June, and in December you’ll be releasing the full TRC report. What can we expect from that?

JMS: Many people are still looking for the basis for why we said what we said. The full report will reveal all of that. We have to produce that report in French and English, so that takes time.

WKS: At the final TRC event in Ottawa, the media seized on the phrase “cultural genocide.” Do you think this was a good place to start the conversation about the meaning of residential schools and reconciliation? Or would you have preferred the focus to have been elsewhere?

JMS: I was quite fine with it. We knew when we were writing the report that it was going to be the big question. It’s not only important to Survivors, but I think Canada and the political leadership of the country needed to know what we were going to say about it. It’s an important part of the foundation for the conversation going forward. It puts all of this experience into a proper perspective. This was not simply nice people who made a mistake. This was a truly unacceptable intention to wipe out Aboriginal people through the elimination of their cultures.

WKS: During the TRC you had occasion to comment on murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Your comments made me think of the death of Helen Betty Osborne and your work with the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. It seems that little has changed. Looking back over you long career, do you feel there’s been much positive progress?

JMS: I’ve always maintained that the kind of change we need—the change I’ve been talking about since the AJI [Aboriginal Justice Inquiry] days, which is really systemic change—is going to take a long time to achieve. It’s going to take several generations before we can realistically say that we are on our way to a decent end. Changing systems requires changing the way people believe about the law, they way they believe about their political systems, the way they believe about their institutions, and the way they believe about how they’ve been educated themselves. Those challenges are hard for people to come to terms with.

I think we expect that there will be some conscious, and unconscious push-back even, on the part of the people who are going to wonder if there’s not a different way of doing it. The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change.

WKS: How do we even have a conversation about systemic change when we are on the margins—of the media, of the institutions which will necessarily provide a space for conversations to happen? Aboriginal people have to be invited into these spaces, at someone’s good grace. It sounds to me like we may need to envision and create new institutions, new spaces to host the discussion about the change we need.

JMS: If we start thinking about things that way, we will immediately reject any solutions, because the idea of building from scratch is too overwhelming for most people. But what we’ve said in our report is that you can take what we now have, and you can build on that. This came out of the past. This will soon be our past. We need to figure out how do we take what we now have and change it enough that we can be assured that, in the future, we will have a better relationship, starting with a vision of what the future is going to look like. We have to ask ourselves “Is what we are doing each step of the way going to get us to that vision?” It’s feasible. Highly possible.

WKS: Thank-you, Justice Sinclair.

JMS: Thank-you.

External links: TRC | Murray Sinclair Biography | Settlement Agreement