Reviews | Pope’s Apology to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples is Belated but Appropriate


When mistakes, abuses or crimes are committed, the perpetrator’s contrition and atonement are the first steps and prerequisites for any possible reconciliation. This is true when evil is caused by individuals or institutions – even those as vast and magisterial as the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, more than any of his predecessors, understood this. He showed it again this week by issuing a deep and moving apology to Canada’s Indigenous peoples whose culture, communities and children have been victimized by what he called “a wrong done by so many Christians.”

The pontiff’s in-person apology may have been too long in coming – at least three decades after reports surfaced of sexual, physical and emotional abuse suffered by children in church-run boarding schools in Canada. Beyond abuse — an act of “cultural genocide,” in the words of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued its conclusion in 2015 – thousands of children died and were buried in schools, usually in unmarked graves, in circumstances often hidden from history.

Although the government founded and funded these schools, they were run by churches. Most were operated by Catholics and their legacy of horror, spanning a century beginning in the 1880s, is staggering testimony to the collateral damage caused by forced assimilation into Canada’s dominant white European culture. The very purpose of the schools was to erase the linguistic and spiritual cornerstones of Indigenous communities, a long-standing act of brutality.

The pope acknowledged this story bluntly, but not as fully as some Indigenous leaders might have wished. For years they have demanded an apology not only for the role played by the Catholic orders that run many schools – finally delivered earlier this year, when indigenous leaders met with Francis at Vatican — but also for the institutional complicity of the Church. Moreover, while the Canadian federal government has paid billions of dollars in reparations to former residential school students in a class action lawsuit, and Protestant denominations have paid millions more, the Catholic Church , which ran about two-thirds of the approximately 130 residential schoolscontributed a relative paltry sum.

Yet words matter, and the pope’s were largely on point when, in the first public appearance of his week-long trip to Canada on Monday, he addressed a powwow circle on the site of a former residential school south of Edmonton. , Alberta. The school was founded by Catholic missionaries.

Addressing himself To “every indigenous community and person”, Francis expressed his “shame” and said he was “deeply sorry”, drawing applause from the indigenous people in attendance. He asked forgiveness “for the way in which many members of the Church and religious communities cooperated, notably through their indifference, in the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time, which resulted in the residential school system. .”

Equally important, he acknowledged that apologies were not enough and said he agreed that “concrete” actions would be needed to achieve full reconciliation. It is therefore incumbent on the Vatican, in this papacy or the next, to put into practice the words of Francis.

James C. Tibbs