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. ⌾

Kamloops Indian Residential School

Time to Pay For The Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate

“Kamloops

Children Died and Disappeared Because the Government Was Cheap

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | June 2, 2021 • Current Events

THE Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announcement of a newly-confirmed burial ground is an instance of shock but not necessarily of surprise. For decades the existence of unmarked graves on and near former residential school properties had been known among the former students, and many of them told me so when I first began researching and writing about the residential school system in the 1990s. Only the scale and precise location of these sites were, and still are, a matter of uncertainty.

The need for an investigation was evident even before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established, on June 1, 2008. Volume Four of the TRC’s final report, “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials,” rehearses the background of the 2007 Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate, a directive of Jim Prentice, at the time Minister responsible for Indian Affairs and the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada. Prentice instructed a working group to produce recommendations for research into the disappeared children of the residential schools, only for his successor to reject the recommendations when they came back with a request for funding in excess of $1.5 million.

As the TRC puts it, “the federal government’s denial of this request has placed significant limits on the Commission’s ability to fully implement the working group’s proposals, despite our sincere belief in their importance.” The substance of these proposals was four research projects into topics including student enrolment and illness numbers, disease and death rates, disappearances of children, and the location of cemeteries and gravesites in which students are believed to be buried. None of these studies was within the scope of the TRC’s existing budget, hence the request for additional funds to support an expanded mandate. A scaled-down version of this research was conducted and published as volume four of the TRC final report, and today this volume constitutes the first and perhaps only systematic effort to document these subjects, albeit within constraints partly related to resources but also to a lack of historical documentation.

Where might we be today had the Minister allocated funding to support his Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate? No one can say as certain. But we can note an irony occurring across the history of Indian Affairs, the short-term cost-saving measure that in the long-run costs more dearly. Parsimony was the guiding principle of the residential school system on the day it was created, by an Order in Council of October 22, 1892 which established the government-church partnership as well as the per-capita funding formula. (The 1892 formula was a cut of funding levels Indian Affairs had been paying for industrial and boarding schools up until that date.) From then forward parsimony would keep coin in the accounts of the Crown at the expense of undernourished children and overcrowded buildings, the spread of disease, and other ugliness that is today the subject of class action lawsuits, multi-billion-dollar settlements, and several commission reports.

Over the years I’ve met and interviewed hundreds of survivors (as former Indian residential school students came to be called) in and from communities coast to coast to coast. Their stories have been recorded in books, plays, newspaper articles, and commission reports. But many children did not survive, and others who did survive were forever lost to their parents and families and communities. Some were institutionalized, others placed into adoption, and yet others drifted into towns and cities, never to restore the bonds that residential schools were designed to sever. The two hundred and fifteen children we have read about represent two hundred and fifteen families and many more siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. The scope of this pain is as large as Canada itself. We can never know the experiences of their short lives in their own words. All Canada, and the churches who ran the schools, can do now is support the work of communities like Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. ⌾

Read this article at the National Post.

Notes Toward a Candid Conversation About Genocide in Canada

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AS THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION Commission of Canada hosts its national event this week, in Edmonton, the topic of genocide is once again surfacing. Usually the topic is posed as a question: is Canada “guilty of genocide”? Over the years, I’ve had many conversations that began with this question, and I’ve done a fair amount of reading and thinking. Here are my notes toward an informed conversation about Canada and genocide.

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Teach Canadians the history of residential schools

CANADA’S TRUTH and Reconciliation Commission has received a dab of media attention, much of it for regrettable reasons. In October 2008, the TRC Chair Justice Harry LaForme resigned, citing the political interference of the Assembly of First Nations and the insubordination of his (AFN-appointed) co-commissioners, Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley. This inauspicious beginning yielded to inauspicious mid-points, the Canadian franchise of the TRC brand-name drawing attention for delays and the bureaucratic impediments which hindered its progress. The messenger aside, what about the message? On the final day of a three-day AFN National Justice Forum, in Vancouver, the Commission has been scheduled to release an Interim Report.

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