Why Is Canada Saying That The Pope's Apology To The Indigenous People Isn't Enough?

  • Many indigenous people are disappointed that Pope Francis avoided mentioning sexual abuse in his apology.
  • Some also felt that the apology didn’t go far enough in accepting responsibility for institutional wrongs dating back to centuries.
  • Swarajya StaffMonday, August 1, 2022 4:49 am IST
    Pope Francis  with indigenous people.
    Pope Francis with indigenous people.

    Pope Francis has been on a visit to Canada. According to his own words, it is a penitential pilgrimage to atone.

    What is the Pope atoning for?

    He is atoning for the church’s role in the residential school system, in which "generations of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and forced to attend church-run, government-funded boarding schools to assimilate them into Christian, Canadian society," as per a report from the NBC.

    According to the Canadian government, physical abuse and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools. Students were beaten for speaking in their native languages. According to some estimates, over 6,000 children died at the schools. A large number of unmarked graves have been discovered over the years, forcing the Canadian government to take note.

    More than 150,000 native children were taken away from their homes from the nineteenth century until as recently as the 1970s. These children were placed in the schools in an effort to isolate them from their culture and family. A large number of these children were sexually abused.

    Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is a Catholic, believes that the Catholic Church, as an institution, bears the responsibility and needs to do more to atone. In the past, the Canadian Prime Minister has pointed out that the calls for the Church to release its records on the schools had been met with "resistance". It is worth flagging that his father, Pierre Trudeau, was prime minister while the last residential schools were in operation.

    On Monday last week, Francis apologised for “the wrongs done by so many Christians to Indigenous peoples” as well as “local Catholic institutions”.

    However, Francis in his statement noted that the school system was promoted at that time by the Canadian government as part of their policy to promote assimilation. He noted that in this evil, local Catholic institutions had a part.

    It has been a long standing demand of the indigenous people that the Pope assumes responsibility "not just for abuses committed by individual Catholic priests and religious orders, but for the Catholic church’s institutional support of the assimilation policy and the papacy’s 15th century religious justification for European colonial expansion to spread Christianity."

    The Canadian government has already apologised for its role in the school legacy. The Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, issued a formal apology over the residential schools in Parliament in 2008. He called them a sad chapter in Canada's history. He accepted that the policy of forced assimilation indeed caused great harm to the society.

    Canada has paid reparations that amount to billions of dollars, as part of a settlement of a lawsuit involving the government, churches and the approximately 90,000 surviving students. The Catholic church too has paid over $50 million and has expressed an intention to pay $30 million more over the next five years.

    So why is Canada not satisfied with Francis' atonement?

    According to Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, Francis "didn’t mention sexual abuse in his list of abuses endured by Indigenous children in the schools. Francis on Monday listed instead physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse. In addition, Miller noted that Francis spoke of “evil” committed by individual Christians “but not the Catholic Church as an institution”."

    Many indigenous people are disappointed that Francis avoided mentioning sexual abuse. Some also felt that it didn’t go far enough in accepting responsibility for institutional wrongs dating back to centuries, such as accepting the role of papacy's fifteenth century justification of colonisation for the purpose of expanding Christianity.

    Others have welcomed his apology as genuine and added that it will help them heal from the mental scars that they endured as a result of those schools.

    “It is our desire to renew the relationship between the Church and the indigenous peoples of Canada, a relationship marked both by a love that has borne outstanding fruit and, tragically, deep wounds that we are committed to understanding and healing,” the Pope said.

    The Canadian Prime Minister said that the atonement by the Pope was significant but only the first step in the long road of healing. Francis himself acknowledged that the wounds will take time to heal and that his visit and apology were merely first steps.

    It is worth highlighting that the apology from the Pope became a reality because Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 had called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil.

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