Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will ask the Pope to apologize for the role that the Catholic church played in the physical and sexual abuse of children who attended one of Canada's church-run Indian residential schools.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which spent six years looking into abuses at the schools, released its final report this week and included among its 94 "calls to action" a request that the Pope issue such an apology.
Mr. Trudeau has promised to implement all of the calls to action that fall within federal jurisdiction and to work with other levels of government and organizations to make progress on the rest. When he emerged Wednesday from a two-hour meeting with leaders of five indigenous organizations, he told reporters that pressing the Pope on the matter of the apology remained part of that commitment.
"I look forward to having a conversation with His Holiness about this," the Prime Minister told reporters. "I am certainly intending to work with the Catholic church, including with the Holy See, to move forward on implementing that recommendation, to ask him directly to engage with this issue."
The Catholic church is the last of the major religious organizations to express regret for its treatment of indigenous students at the schools, which operated for more than 100 years.
Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of the Catholic archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan spoke Tuesday at the gathering where the final TRC report was made public, and said the church bears a "great responsibility" for what happened in the residential schools. But calls to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on Wednesday were not returned.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper met with Pope Francis at the Vatican last spring, just nine days after the TRC released its interim report, but the matter of the apology was not raised directly during their private discussion. That meeting, coincidentally, took place on June 11, the seventh anniversary of Mr. Harper's own apology for the federal government's role in creating the residential-school system.
Murray Sinclair, TRC chair, said at the release of the final report that he was heartened by Pope Francis' recent willingness to acknowledge the past offences of his church in South America. That, he said "gives us hope that the Catholic church will act toward reconciliation in our own country."
In addition to its role in running the largest number of residential schools in Canada, indigenous groups take issue with the Catholic church over so-called papal bulls of the 15th century that gave Christian explorers the right to claim and lands they "discovered" in the name of their Christian monarchs. Those decrees said that non-Christians could be enslaved or killed if they refused to convert.
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told reporters after his meeting with Mr. Trudeau and the other cabinet ministers that obtaining an apology from the Pope remains an important objective of his people.
"Getting an audience with His Holiness is very important to bring about healing and reconciliation for their role in the imposition of the residential-school system," said Mr. Bellegarde, "but, as well, to talk about that papal bull and the Doctrine of Discovery to be repealed because it's being viewed now internationally as an illegal and racist doctrine."
Mr. Harper rarely met with Canada's indigenous leaders.
Mr. Trudeau, on the other hand, attended a large gathering of chiefs in Gatineau, Que., last week, spoke at this week's Truth and Reconciliation ceremony and had the meeting with indigenous leaders on Wednesday.
"This is an engagement that is going to take years, decades and generations perhaps, but it is important to start with a true sense of collaboration and partnership and that's exactly what we cemented this morning," he said. "From this moment forward there will be individual conversations with ministers, with myself, bilateral relationships looking at different initiatives. There will also be opportunities for all of us to pull together at least yearly in meetings like this to check in in an ongoing fashion."
Mr. Trudeau also suggested that his government may take different legal positions from that of the previous Conservative government in court cases between Ottawa and indigenous people.
"We know that it does no one any good for issues like this to have to be settled in court. We need to be able to settle them in robust and substantive conversations," he said, when asked about an ongoing case in which the government is fighting to keep survivors of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador from claiming compensation that was paid to former students in other parts of the country.
"We need to move forward responsibly," he said, "but, as we make that decision in a responsible way, which we have certainly asked our Justice Minister to do, we will have more to say on that case and others."