Pope Francis fulfilled the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Call to Action No. 58 by offering an apology, in Canada, to the survivors of Indian Residential Schools, their families and communities. He said, “I am sorry,” and asked forgiveness for the participation of church members in “projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation.”
The Pope spoke at Maskwacis, near the site of the former Ermineskin Residential School in Alberta. However, the apology came seven years after the call was issued by the TRC — and did not definitively acknowledge the role of the church itself in the residential school system.
After the Pope had spoken, Chief Judy Wilson of Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called out for the Pope to repeal the Doctrine of Discovery. Such a response reveals one of many gaps in the Pope’s statement. The Doctrine of Discovery provided theological and legal justification for the dispossession of Indigenous lands by European colonizers and has been the basis for the Crown’s assertion of sovereignty.
Meaning of an apology
My reflection and analysis are rooted in my perspective as a white settler and a scholar of church apologies for historical wrongs. They also reflect very initial impressions. It is not for me to say what the apology means to survivors. In reality, the meaning of an apology is not fully determined by the words that are said but by the actions that follow.
Whether this apology has truly advanced the goal of healing may become evident only in years and decades to come. It is also possible that the Pope will make additional statements, with further nuance, throughout his visit.
Like Pope Francis’s statement in Rome on April 1, this apology acknowledged the suffering experienced by those in Indian Residential Schools, including loss of culture, language and spirituality, and “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse.” Despite acknowledging that he had heard the painful testimony of survivors, the Pope did not name sexual abuse, which was specified in Call to Action No. 58.
“In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children,” he said. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples.”
‘Create a culture’
The Pope emphasized that his apology is only “a first step, the starting point,” and that any such words will always be deeply inadequate. He said the long path of healing will require many actions and must penetrate the hearts of Catholics.
The Pope expressed a commitment to a path that respects the identities and experiences of Indigenous people. When he spoke about the need to “create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening,” this appears to suggest that the church will need to change some of its own institutional cultures and practices.
Unlike his apology at the Vatican, the Pope was very much a guest in Indigenous space. He was welcomed by local chiefs, drummers and singers, and by those who spoke the very Indigenous languages that residential schools tried to extinguish. In these ways, the ceremony of the event can be a microcosm of a renewed and more respectful relationship. The presence of the Pope who has had to reduce his travel for health reasons may be received as a sign of his personal commitment.
Project of dispossession
The apology acknowledged the church’s destruction of Indigenous cultures, but this destruction was in service to Canada’s dispossession of Indigenous lands, and these cultures are inextricably tied to particular lands. The Pope did not make these connections.
Nor did the Pope explicitly acknowledge the complicity and responsibility of the church as an institution running the schools. As he did in his April apology, the Pope maintained a distinction between what individual Catholics did — adding, this time, that individuals advanced the policy of assimilation underlying the schools — and what the church did.
Parts of the speech seemed to place the church and Indigenous people on the same side, as though they were all victims grieving the same evils. For example, speaking of “interiorizing our pain,” sounds as though Pope Francis wished to identify a common pain he experienced with survivors. Such a view could suggest inadequate recognition that memories of past traumas are very different for victims than for perpetrators.
As is the case in most church apologies for historical wrongs, the Pope was addressing two audiences.
The first audience comprises those harmed by the residential schools. The second audience consists of those in the church who, as settlers, are called to specific actions of healing and repair. Some may not believe they bear responsibility for this past.
Some may not believe things were that bad in the schools. Will the Pope’s statement persuade them to engage more deeply with this history?
Pope Francis called for a “serious investigation into the facts of what took place and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered.”
While this remains vague, the Pope appears to suggest a process of reckoning within the church. Might this open up more church records? Might this lead to a recognition of the church’s institutional complicity? Might this lead to more specific actions called for by survivors, such as the return of artifacts from the Vatican?
All of these may be possible but they also might not happen.
The fulfilment of one of the TRC Calls to Action is not an end in itself. It is one act of truth-telling that must be in service to the other Calls to Action, which together implicates all Canadians in the long path ahead.
It is important to recall that Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008 on behalf of the Government of Canada and asserted that the burden on this history should be borne by the entire country. The apology in Maskwacis by the Pope, long overdue, should not really be about the Pope or even just the Catholic Church.
Rather, it should be about acknowledging the suffering and the human dignity of survivors. It should also be received as an occasion for all Canadians to reckon with a painful past, and engage in the long and difficult and costly work of repair.
If you are an Indian Residential School survivor, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.
Jeremy M. Bergen
Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Theological Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.