Pope Francis Pope Francis. Photo: Mazur / catholicnews.org.uk / Catholic Church England and Wales / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked below article

The Pope’s apology to Indigenous people may be a sham but the challenge to colonial dispossession that made it necessary will continue until there is real justice, writes John Clarke

Over a period covering more than 150 years, the residential school system in Canada was used to try and destroy Indigenous identity and culture by crushing several generations of children. Some 150,000 of them were forced into the ‘schools,’ where ‘Western values and Christianity’ were driven into them with unspeakable cruelty. This brutal episode still casts a shadow over this country, as more of the unmarked graves of those who didn’t survive the ordeal continue to be located.

The Catholic Church played a major role in operating these hellish facilities and the Vatican has now been forced to respond to strident demands that it be held accountable. This month, a dubiously penitent Pope visited Canada and issued a very cautious and carefully crafted apology for the appalling treatment that representatives of his faith inflicted on tens of thousands of Indigenous children. 

‘Penitential pilgrimage’

As the degree of human suffering and the lethal history of the residential schools became ever more clear and widely understood, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established, as part of an agreement between Indigenous representatives, the federal government and the church bodies that had operated the facilities. It concluded its work in 2015, issuing findings and recommendations that included a Call to Action #58 that was addressed to the Pope.

“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 Metis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

On 25 July, as the key act in a belated ‘penitential pilgrimage,’ the Pope stood before the site of a former residential school south of Edmonton, Alberta and delivered his apology. In reading over the text, it is immediately apparent that, while the Holy Father may have sought Divine guidance in drawing it up, he also ran it by his legal advisers.

Pope Francis told his audience that, “I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow, to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you.” He declared that “The memory of those children is indeed painful; it urges us to work to ensure that every child is treated with love, honour and respect.”

Despite his pain, however, the Pope was very careful to avoid directly accepting the blame that lies squarely on the shoulders of his enormously well-resourced Church. He deplored “the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous Peoples.” He spoke of “the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time.” His failure to directly name the Roman Catholic Church is strikingly apparent.

The Pope described the systematic cruelty inflicted on Indigenous children over generations as “a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He went on to sheepishly recognise that “many of you and your representatives have stated that begging pardon is not the end of the matter.” However, when it came to the possibility of compensation for communities still devastated by the impact of the residential schools, the godly visitor from Rome only offered to “conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered.” From the very cautious framing of this expression of remorse, we may strongly infer that any negotiations that take place over measures of redress will involve far more pragmatism than piety.

While we must not be dismissive or disrespectful towards those Indigenous people who may place hopes in this exercise, after so many years of suffering and denial, the cynicism and hollowness of the Papal apology must surely be challenged. Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and whose family endured the residential schools, responded by pointing out that ‘the Holy Father’s statement has left a deep hole in the acknowledgement of the full role of the Church in the Residential School system, by placing blame on individual members of the Church.’

Sinclair, though he couched his response in diplomatic terms, set out quite clearly the role of the Catholic Church in the process of colonial dispossession and genocide. ‘Driven by the Doctrine of Discovery and other Church beliefs and doctrines, Catholic leaders not only enabled the Government of Canada, but pushed it even further in its work.

Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw activist and academic, offered the view that ‘anything less than an apology that includes an unqualified admission of the crimes committed, a full acceptance of responsibility, and a commitment to end the abuse and make full reparations will be just another empty apology and continuing injustice for First Nations, Inuit and Metis.’ Despite the efforts of the Canadian establishment to present the Papal apology in the most glowing terms, such dissenting voices have been plentiful and impossible to silence.

Colonial context

When it comes to the cruelty and suffering of the residential school period, the Catholic Church is, indeed, as guilty as sin. It played the lead role in operating these places and its representatives were the direct abusers in most cases. However, it is also important to understand, in assessing officially sanctioned apologies, that the residential school approach was taken as part of a ‘logic of elimination’ that is fundamental to Canada, as a settler colonial undertaking.

If we are to call evidence of this genocidal logic in the operation of the residential schools, one of the best witnesses for the prosecution is the man who ran the operation for decades. In 1910, the then head of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, responded to allegations that the conditions in the schools were causing needless deaths among the children forced into them with these memorable words:

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.”

Since the residential schools were wound down, the effort to solve the ‘Indian problem’ has continued. The ‘Sixties Scoop,’ that saw the mass removal of Indigenous children from their homes in the name of ‘child welfare,’ was a horribly damaging continuation of the process. Today, rampant incarceration of Indigenous people has reached such levels that an impeccably mainstream media source can assert that ‘Canada’s prisons are the new residential schools.’

As these efforts at containment and control are put in place, the act of dispossession continues. The driving of pipelines through the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en people in British Columbia, and the use of brutal police repression to further this objective, represent a particularly sharp and clear example of this. The government of Justin Trudeau, someone who can outperform the Pope when it comes to cynical displays of questionable remorse for the cameras, is fully implicated in this drive.

While the Pope’s antics must be challenged decisively, it is important to appreciate that all this high level damage control reflects something very important. The attempt to crush Indigenous identity through the brutality of the residential schools caused great harm but it didn’t succeed. That identity is still very much intact and Indigenous resistance continues unabated. The Pope’s apology may be a sham but the challenge to colonial dispossession that made it necessary will continue until there is real justice on this land.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.