Pope Francis has agreed to visit Canada as part of the reconciliation process, bowing to years of pressure from Indigenous groups and Catholics appalled by rampant abuse in the country’s residential schools.
If the Pope apologizes when he visits, it would fulfill a Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendation from 2015. The TRC called on the Pope to apologize 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” within one year.
The TRC’s 2015 recommendation for a one-year timeline was made in consideration of aging survivors.
The Pope, however, is bound to have a mixed reception when he visits. For many survivors of residential schools, he embodies a past that cannot be forgiven.
“I lived at the end of a strap for 12 years,” said Cyril Pierre, a member of the Katzie First Nation near Vancouver who spent 12 years at St. Mary’s Residential School. “I was sexually abused. The pain of that time still lives with me. The Pope can come and say what he wants. To me, it will be meaningless.”
That echoes the majority view among survivors who talk to Joanne Henry, executive director of the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools Society, a Whitehorse-based support group. “I certainly won’t be running around trying to shake his hand,” said Ms. Henry, who was forced to attend Lower Post Residential School at age 5. “If I met him, I’d say, ‘You guys tried to ruin us. You tried to ruin everything we believed in.’”
In a brief statement, the Vatican said Wednesday that the Pope had been invited by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and that he “has indicated his willingness to visit the country on a date to be settled in due course.”
Vatican officials have long hinted that the Pope was willing to apologize on Canadian soil for the Catholic church’s role in the abuse and deaths of thousands of Indigenous children. But protocol demanded that the CCCB formally invite him.
Marie Wilson, one of the TRC’s three commissioners, says any apology needs to come with meaningful amends, such as a full disclosure of church records. “It’s unfortunate this has taken so long,” she said. “We’ve lost thousands of survivors since then who will never get the benefit of an apology.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Pope Francis to visit Canada to apologize when the two met in 2017.
There is still no indication precisely when the papal visit will take place, though it does not appear imminent. The Pope is 84 and was in poor health this summer; he spent 10 days in hospital recovering from colon surgery. He has resumed travelling within Europe since then.
The bishops did not explain the timing of the invitation, which comes less than two months before representatives of First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups are due to make a three-day visit to the Vatican. Pope Francis is to meet with each group individually, then preside over a final audience with all three on Dec. 20.
The leader of that papal delegation, Norman Yakeleya, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Northwest Territories and himself a residential school survivor, said the group will convey what they expect of the Pope when he arrives in Canada.
“We would like to see him, to see him pray with Indigenous people on our land, to see him participate in our traditional ceremonies,” Mr. Yakeleya said.
AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald issued her own series of demands in a statement on Wednesday. She called on the Pope to apologize, return diocese lands to First Nations, fund long-term healing projects beyond a recent $30-million commitment and renounce the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery, a papal decree that gave European explorers licence to ignore Indigenous habitation and claim land for their sovereigns.
“I’ll welcome Pope Francis when he arrives on Turtle Island to issue a long overdue apology to survivors and intergenerational trauma survivors,” she said in the statement, using the name some Indigenous groups use for lands commonly known as North America.
The Vatican’s announcement comes a month after the Catholic Church in Canada “unequivocally” apologized to Indigenous peoples for the suffering they endured in residential schools.
From the 1880s until 1997, about 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools where widespread physical and sexual abuse took place. The Catholic Church operated around 60 per cent of the institutions, most of which have been torn down. Earlier this year, First Nations communities using ground-penetrating radar found hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools, renewing calls for an apology and reparations from the Catholic Church.
Marc Miller, the new Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister, said the Pope’s agreement to visit Canada marks a victory for Indigenous peoples.
“For the Holy Father, in whom many of the faithful saw a lot of hope when he was installed, full and complete recognition of the harm caused to Indigenous peoples was at the top of the list of what they wanted to see him do in Canada,” he told journalists Wednesday. “I know there are mixed views, mixed perspectives on that. But in the grand scheme of what we call reconciliation for Indigenous people, that full recognition of harm caused is something waited for from the Holy Father himself.”
Pope Francis has acknowledged the pain caused to Indigenous peoples in the Americas.
In 2015, in a landmark speech in Bolivia, he apologized for the “grave sins” of colonialism. “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offence of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” he said.
In June, the Pope used his regular Sunday Angelus message to speak about the discovery of children’s graves at two residential schools in Canada, noting the importance of walking “side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.”
After that address, Michael Czerny, a Canadian cardinal who is close to the Pope and reports directly to him, told The Globe and Mail that “Pope Francis knows the shock and dismay of what has happened in Canada. Wherever there is suffering, he wants to express his closeness and his condolences.”
With reports from Ian Bailey, Tavia Grant and Kristy Kirkup
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