Time for Papal apology on Residential Schools

In June of 2008, Canada, through then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, made a Statement of Apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools.  The apology led to the creation the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which reported in June of 2015 with 94 recommendations. Recommendation 58 from that report reads: “We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to survivors, their families, and communities 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.”  But in 2009, when Pope Benedict met with representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, he expressed sorrow over the Churches’ role without actually apologizing.  Now parliament has added its support to the recommendation by calling for the Pope to finally apologize.

In late April, New Democrats brought a motion calling for a Papal apology to the House of Commons. All parties spoke in support of the motion which was adopted on May 1st. It was drafted in response to the late March proclamation from Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops that the Pope would not apologize for the Churches’ role in residential schools.  In doing so the Catholic Church stands alone and, unlike all the other Christian orders that have been involved in formal apologies and paid their share, the Catholic Church used a legal loophole to walk away from its obligation to make a $25 million payment.

For more than a century, the federal government’s church-run residential schools tried to assimilate Indigenous children. They were forced into schools where many were abused, not allowed to speak their languages or engage in their cultural practices. Almost two-thirds of the 130 schools were run by the Catholic Church.  While the church claims it is not responsible for the actions of any Diocese, there is evidence the Vatican was well aware of abuse that took place at these schools.

Over a period of more than a century, an estimated 150,000 indigenous children attended those schools, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that at least 6,000 died. Some call this a calculated act of cultural genocide. It inflicted unimaginable long-term harm on the indigenous children who were forced to attend these schools, and created severe intergenerational trauma that indigenous communities and our country continue to confront.

The Church was entirely complicit with the government on residential schools.  OPP files uncovered clear lines of communication all the way to the Vatican that strips any pretense of this remaining at the Diocese level. The Church even had a practice called “bleeding the children” to feed the mother house. That practice took funds from the minimum monies that were given by the federal government to the residential schools, to pay for their amenities in the mother house of the church.

There is precedence for Papal apologies in Chile and Ireland. The survivors say that an apology would be a critical step towards reconciliation and healing.  When parliament gave the motion its overwhelming support Charlie Angus, the NDP MP who tabled the motion said, “There are days when Parliament rises above the partisan divisions to speak to the profound issues of our time.”  To do that is the challenge that Parliament has made to the Pope.