Pope Francis’ 37th apostolic journey, which will take him to Canada from July 24-30, is a “penitential pilgrimage”: the Holy Father will “meet and embrace the indigenous peoples”, and he will apologize for the role of Church in a system guilty of mortal neglect, suffering and abuse.
In doing so, the Pope could also set in motion another process of healing and reconciliation: a normalization of the Holy See’s relationship with the Government of Canada.
A key moment, preparing for the sinister papal pilgrimage to Canada, took place at the Vatican on May 29, 2017.
On this day, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, invited Pope Francis to visit the country, during which time he could offer the apologies of the Church for the harm caused to the indigenous peoples from the mid-19th century to Twentieth century.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which operated from 2008 to 2015, found that thousands of children died while attending “residential schools” and called for action on 94 points.
Of these, four targeted the Church. They were published under the heading “Church Apologies and Reconciliation”.
In it, the commission called on Pope Francis “to apologize to survivors, their families and communities for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations children. Nations, Inuit and Métis”. in Catholic boarding schools.
The commission developed its suggestions for healing and reconciliation based on extensive reports on the legacy of the residential school system. Assessing them, including the question of responsibility for what was perpetrated in these schools, turned out to be much more complex than expected.
A government program run by Christian churches
The “Indian residential school” system was a network of residential schools created by the Canadian federal government in the 19th century. It was mainly supported by public funds and overseen by government officials
The system existed from 1833 until 1996, when the last of these schools was closed. The schools were run by several Christian denominations, including some Catholic dioceses and religious communities.
These schools did more than provide an education for First Nations, Inuit and Métis children. In reality, they served to provide a program of assimilation, carried out against a population often mistakenly perceived as an “obstacle” to the “progress” of the nation.
The Canadian Conference of Bishops explained on its website that this system had a heavy human cost: “While many former students and school staff spoke positively about their experiences at some schools, many others today today of much more painful memories and legacies, such as the prohibition of indigenous languages and cultural practices, as well as cases of psychological, physical and even sexual violence. ”
The commitment of the Catholic Church
About 16 out of 70 Canadian dioceses were associated with residential schools, in addition to about 40 out of 100 religious communities in Canada.
The Canadian Conference of Bishops acknowledged in a November 1993 brief for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that “the various types of abuse suffered in certain residential schools have led us to a deep examination of conscience in the Church”.
Since the 1990s, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and orders like the Jesuits have offered statements of apology like this on the bishops’ official website.
The response also included the establishment of a $30 million national pledge made by Canadian bishops in September 2021.
Likewise, the Holy See has increasingly accepted this chapter in the history of the Church in Canada.
Pope John Paul II went there in 1984 and 1987. On both occasions, he met indigenous peoples, exalting their culture and the renewal brought by Christianity.
Benedict XVI met with Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, at the end of the general audience on April 29, 2009.
He “recalled that from the first days of its presence in Canada, the Church, especially through its missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples”. Referring to boarding schools, Benedict XVI expressed “his pain at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church, and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity.”
An early whistleblower and a recent warning
At the turn of the 20th century, Peter Henderson Bryce, a public health official and physician, was the first to report the unsanitary conditions in residential schools in Canada. He gathered all the information he could and then, in 1907, published his findings — that about a quarter of Aboriginal children in residential schools had died of tuberculosis.
Bryce also pointed to the broader issue of discrimination, noting that health funds for average Ottawa citizens were about three times higher than those for First Nations people.
In other words, government policies have caused the death of many indigenous children.
Following attempts by government officials to silence him, Bryce published, at his own expense, a small pamphlet on the issue, titled The story of a national crime.
Writing about “myth versus evidence,” Mark DeWolf noted in a 2018 essay — published by public policy think tank FCPP — that “cultural repression, abuse of all kinds, forced incarceration, and even deaths preventable things have happened, and a system that should have done much more to prevent these things should be justly condemned.
He concluded that the residential school system was wrong and “a profoundly misguided attempt to achieve two main goals: to provide Indigenous children with an education and training that would help them survive economically and socially in a white man’s world, and to eradicate these aspects of Aboriginal culture. that would prevent them from achieving those goals.
At the same time, pointing to low attendance and other aspects of the system, DeWolf warned against making residential schools “a scapegoat for 200 years of land grabbing, cultural invasion, deprivation, marginalization and demoralization”.
Otherwise, little would be done to stop and reverse bad policies and practices today.
This point is relevant whether one agrees with DeWolf or not: a 2019 Canadian Human Rights Court ruling found that between 2006 and 2017 the government withdrew between 40,000 and 80,000 Aboriginal children from their families and deprived them of social services. Additionally, the decision ordered Canada to pay $40,000 to each victim for discriminatory conduct. The government appealed the decision, without success.
To add further complexity, critics raised questions about irresponsible media reporting when the discovery of what were first described as unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Indian residence in Kamloops made the international news.
On June 24, 2021, it was first announced that 751 unmarked graves had been discovered at the site of a former school. Leaders stressed the find was for unmarked graves and not a “mass grave site”.
Nevertheless, as a result of the news, some Catholic churches in Canada have been vandalized or found burnt down.
A gesture with serious consequences – and an open question
Pope Francis decided to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church and to assume its responsibilities, without commenting on the question of the sometimes questionable media coverage, nor pursuing the question of how responsible the Church was in the larger historical context.
In short, this visit is a great act of goodwill by the Pope, which aims to heal and reconcile.
This may also apply to relations between Canada and the Holy See, as these have been strained for some time. The issue of the “residential school” system was probably one of the reasons.
Currently, Canada has not officially appointed an Ambassador to the Holy See. There is a business manager, Paul Gibard. He took the post in 2021, after a three-year vacancy. Canada’s last ambassador to the Holy See was Dennis Savoie, who served from 2014 to 2018.
This papal trip could help normalize relations somewhat, and Gibbard’s position could be elevated to that of ambassador. However, after the visit, the full reality and extent of the residential school system has yet to be fully brought to light — and not just in terms of the role of the Church.