The big question when the Pope speaks to First Nations, Métis and Inuit gathered at Maskwacis is: Who will he apologize for?
In April, Francis qualified his words of remorse:
“For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”
Most survivors are hoping for more today. At a minimum, they want Francis to apologize on behalf of the institution he leads as a whole, not merely those who ran the schools.
Here are three perspectives on what the Pope has to say:
→ PHIL FONTAINE, a survivor and two-time national chief of the Assembly of First Nations: “I’m looking for words that will give us comfort. It will bring some peace in our lives, solace and hopefully take us to a place where we can finally forgive for our experiences.”
→ CYNTHIA WESLEY-ESQUIMAUX, a daughter of survivors and chair on Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University: “People will now have a story to tell their children, their grandchildren, about the pope’s visit, and about his acknowledgment that this damage has been done,” she said. “It will also help to explain to Canadians generally that this is the truth of the reconciliation story.”
→ LORI CAMPBELL, the University of Regina’s associate vice president of Indigenous engagement who was taken from her family, and adopted by a white family as part of the Sixties Scoop: “For those of us in particular who are the legacy, and still experiencing the impact of what the residential schools did to our aunties and uncles and grandparents, it further reinforces distrust. It doesn’t support reconciliation, because words are just words, and especially words that seem like they’ve been forced to have to finally say, without concrete actions.”
— Practical demands: Many Indigenous leaders want Francis to revoke centuries-old edicts known as the Papal Bulls, which included the so-called “doctrine of discovery” that denied sovereignty of non-Christian peoples as Europeans explored and claimed new lands.
Over the weekend, the Globe and Mail reported on the legal complexity of the debate over the doctrine of discovery. BRUCE MCIVOR, a lawyer and member of the Manitoba Métis Federation, set the stakes for that debate.
“Every time someone in Canada sells property and wrings their hands in glee over all the money they’ve made, they are participating in the Doctrine of Discovery. Every resource development, every pipeline — that’s all based on the Doctrine of Discovery,” McIvor said.
For more on the Doctrine of Discovery, check out this piece in the current issue of National Geographic.
Louise Large thrashed and screamed, fighting the black-robed nuns who held her tightly while speaking in a language she couldn’t understand. As she watched her grandmother walk away, the young Cree girl realized she’d been left at the Blue Quill, a residential school for Indigenous children in Alberta, Canada. Afterward, she said in a 2011 testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “I just screamed and screamed for hours.”
Soon, Large realized that she must adhere to a strict schedule at the school that revolved around Christianity, which she was now expected to practice. The children prayed so much, she said sarcastically, that they all got “boarding school knees”—joints turned callused and creaky because of the schools’ forced prayers.
Large was living out the legacy of the colonization of Canada, whose government forced more than 100,000 First Nations children to attend residential schools that stripped them of their Indigenous identities and attempted to convert them to Christianity.
In the 21st century, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would uncover the history of the schools and their effects on Indigenous Canadians. Along the way, it documented how a centuries-old religious doctrine enabled the founding and operation of schools that caused so much harm.
Activists and religious organizations alike have called on the Catholic leader to revoke the “doctrine of discovery”—a series of 15th-century papal decrees that laid the foundation for the European takeover of the New World and the annihilation of Indigenous culture in the name of Christianity.
Photo: Vatican Media