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An Indigenous woman wipes a tear during a mass with Pope Francis at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, Quebec on July 28, 2022.Nathan Denette/The Associated Press

Cassidy Caron is the president of the Métis National Council.

As he was returning home to the Vatican last month, Pope Francis gave voice to a truth that Indigenous peoples have long known, but many Canadians have remained reluctant or unprepared to say: The abuses inflicted upon Indigenous peoples in the land we now call Canada amounted to genocide.

Pope Francis had, of course, just concluded a six-day penitential pilgrimage to Canada, reactions to which have been mixed, to say the least.

During that time, he reiterated an apology, first delivered on April 1 in Rome to Métis, First Nations and Inuit delegations in the Vatican, for the complicity of some Catholic individuals and entities within the residential-school system. In doing so, he fulfilled – in the most basic way possible – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 58.

Perhaps more consequentially, though, Pope Francis took time during his Canadian visit to meet privately with and listen to the painful truths carried by residential-school survivors, as he had done when we visited Rome earlier this year. As president of the Métis National Council, I have sat silently in several of these rooms, bearing witness to painful survivor testimony and the reactions of the Pope to what he was hearing.

It is during these heart-wrenching encounters that Pope Francis’s humanity and genuine emotion have been most fully visible. How could any human, let alone an elderly man who has himself witnessed profound suffering in his lifetime, not be forever changed by the stories of spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse inflicted upon innocent children, so bravely recounted by now-aged survivors?

It was these incredibly difficult truths, shared directly from the mouths of those who experienced them during the Vatican visit, that I firmly believe compelled the Pope to deliver his unexpected apology on April 1. There is incredible power in our survivors’ voices and stories.

It was therefore of little surprise that Pope Francis was once again compelled to bold action during his flight home to Rome. He had, of course, just spent his day listening to the truths of Inuit survivors in Iqaluit.

From the moment Pope Francis entered the school gymnasium where Inuit survivors and intergenerational survivors had gathered, their wails of emotional release filled the room with a melancholic chorus – a prelude to the immensely powerful encounter that would follow. One by one, for over an hour, they shared their painful truths with the Pope.

By the time they were finished, nearly everyone present, including federal ministers and members of the Pope’s security detail, was left in uncontrollable tears. The Pope himself was visibly moved and ended the time together by committing to action. How could he not?

But few could have imagined just how quickly that action would come. For it was shortly after taking off on his chartered ITA Airways jet, in response to a reporter’s pointed question, that Pope Francis made yet another unexpected proclamation: that he believes Indigenous peoples of Canada had, in fact, experienced genocide.

I have absolutely no doubt his acknowledgment was a direct result of the survivors’ truths he had heard earlier that day. They unquestionably moved his heart. And, with that shift, they may have also changed our country forever.

The Pope’s unqualified use of the word genocide marks a potential watershed moment in Canadian history. It comes nearly seven years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission acknowledged Canada’s residential-school system as “cultural genocide” – and after as many years of continuing debate around whether or not the qualified statement had gone far enough.

Regardless of one’s personal opinion about the most appropriate terminology, we can hopefully all acknowledge that the TRC’s statement opened a very important doorway. At the time, many Canadians were likely unprepared or unwilling to jump straight to the conclusion that colonization had amounted to genocide. Understandably so. We didn’t know all that we know now.

The TRC’s brave use of the term “cultural genocide” gave Canadians permission to start thinking about colonization in new ways. It gave them permission to start speaking about its effects in bold and difficult terms. It began a process of aligning Canadian consciousness with the realities that Indigenous peoples have long known.

Since then, we have continued to learn more. Much more.

Following the release of the TRC’s final report, we have had a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a Senate report on the forced sterilization of Indigenous women, the Sixties Scoop settlement agreement and, of course, the discovery of hundreds of potential unmarked graves at former residential-school sites across Canada.

Taken as a whole, it is now abundantly clear that the systematic attempted erasure of Indigenous peoples went far beyond residential schools alone. Residential schools were but one manifestation of a much broader, more deeply engrained and persistent colonizing system, one that continues, in many ways, to this day.

We now know that each of that system’s manifestations and outcomes can no longer be examined in isolation. It is clear that they are all inextricably connected.

With each new revelation, we have also taken another collective step toward objectively meeting the United Nations’ conditions for the recognition of genocide, which include: killing members of a group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group; deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group; and forcibly transferring children of a group to another.

It is with all of this knowledge, understanding and recognition in mind that we must now and forever move beyond qualified statements about “cultural genocide.” We simply know too much. We now know better.

We know that colonizing systems have murdered and sterilized our life-givers. We know that they have stolen and clandestinely buried our future generations. We know that they have tried to teach Indigenous peoples to hate ourselves and each other more than the systems themselves, so that they would persist while we would not.

Genocide occurred – period. There is no turning back.

I hope that Pope Francis’s acknowledgment will help to finally put an end to the debate about the truths of this country. With it, we may finally be able to shift our full collective attention to where it belongs: forging a shared pathway forward toward lasting healing, justice and reconciliation.

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