Pope’s 6-day pilgrimage to Canada leaves a ‘deep hole’

Governor General Mary Simon, Inuk’s First Deputy Royal Representative, was in attendance. So did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, as well as First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations from all over the country.

As the pope concludes his visit to Canada on Friday, many who came to console him say he had not offered a concrete way forward. Aside from a vague promise to “make a serious inquiry into the facts of what happened,” many observers were left wondering what would happen next. What concrete actions will the Pope take to improve the lives of survivors?

At stake is the ability of tens of thousands of survivors to heal after decades of violence and abuse that inflicted well-documented intergenerational trauma on their descendants.

They have heard words of reconciliation before.

In 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the federal government’s role in forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes and placing them in homes designed to erase their traditional languages, culture and traditions. A new era of truth and reconciliation was set in motion.

There have been moments of hope.

Phil Fontaine, then the national head of the Assembly of First Nations and a residential school survivor, accepted Harper’s apology on the floor of the House of Commons — and set his sights on the future.

“We must not waver in our duty now. Encouraged by this spectacle of history, it is possible to end our racial nightmare together,” Fontaine told the room. “The memories of residential schools sometimes cut through our souls like relentless knives. This day will help us put that pain behind us.”

The history of the moment was undeniable. That apology launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that heard from thousands of residential school survivors and produced a landmark 2015 report listing 94 calls to action to promote reconciliation.

Harper first introduced the concept to many Canadians in 2008.

He said the TRC will be “a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal people and other Canadians, one based on the knowledge of our shared history, respect for each other and a desire to move forward with a newfound understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.”

Fourteen years later, reconciliation is a work in progress.

Pope Francis’ apology for the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools admitted “deplorable evil” was committed by members of the Church whose policies had “catastrophic” consequences for children and their families.

But he only apologized for the actions of a few individuals, not the institution as a whole.

Francis has not broached the subject of reparations either. Nor did he commit to releasing any data that would help locate the final resting places of many indigenous children. He didn’t say a word about revoking a 15th-century papal edict that denied sovereignty to non-Christians — the “Doctrine of Discovery” — which historians say underpins centuries of dehumanization of indigenous peoples.

The former chairman of the TRC, a retired judge and senator named Murray Sinclair, acknowledged the positive impact of Francis’s apology on many survivors who listened. But he said the expression of repentance had left a “deep hole” regarding the Church’s entire role in the school system.

Sinclair offered another way forward.

“There is a better path that the Church — and all Canadians — can indeed follow: take responsibility for past actions and decide to do better on this journey of reconciliation,” he wrote in a statement. “We need to make an effort to talk to and about each other with respect.”

Canada’s relationship with Reconciliation has taken a predictable path since Harper’s apology. Pollsters rarely find it at the top of the average Canadian’s list of election priorities, but spikes in attention reliably produce promises from politicians to re-commit to doing better.

The summer of 2021 marked the beginning of yet another new chapter. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia made headlines after announcing the discovery of more than 200 potential unmarked graves near the site of a residential school. Two weeks later, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan revealed hundreds more.

None of these discoveries came as a surprise to the people whose oral histories spoke of unmarked graves. The TRC report even refers to them. But it came as shocking news to many Canadians unaware of its history.

Trudeau had come to power in 2015 and pledged to carry out the TRC’s dozens of calls to action — a historic commitment to do everything in the government’s power to improve the lives of indigenous peoples.

After Cowessess, Trudeau again apologized for the government’s role in the schools — and promised once again that he would do better.

“We will continue to put indigenous peoples and their wishes at the center of everything we do,” he said. “We are here to partner in whatever it takes to find the full truth and ensure reconciliation is possible.”

On the first-ever National Day of Truth and Reconciliation last September, a day of gloomy reflection for many, Trudeau went to the west coast for a short vacation — visiting Tk’emlúps at Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, BC. He later apologized for an error of judgment.

“Instead of talking about truth and reconciliation, people were talking about me, and that’s my fault,” he said. “I take my responsibility for that.”

The prime minister visited the community a few weeks later in October. Ashley Michel, a mother of Secwe̓pemc, took the microphone at a televised event and fought back tears while addressing Trudeau directly. She demanded better days ahead.

“Our kids don’t have to feel this pain, and it stops with my generation,” she said. “I want our children to have a future where their voices are heard. Where they don’t have to worry about being another statistic. Where our people are safe. So that our children have clean drinking water. Where they don’t have to defend their sacred traditional land.”

In April, a delegation of survivors visited the Pope in Rome. Fontaine was also in that room, hoping for a long-awaited apology. To his surprise, Francis gave one during a private audience at the end of the trip — promising to repeat it in First Nations territory.

After his visit to Maskwacis, the Pope delivered a super-sized mass at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton and visited a pilgrimage site outside the city. He then flew to Quebec City to meet Trudeau, as well as local Indigenous representatives.

During evening prayers in Quebec, the pope acknowledged “the evil perpetrated by some (the Church) sons and daughters” against “minors and vulnerable people” in the form of sexual abuse.

Francis’ last stop before returning to Rome is in the territory of Nunavut, where he will meet the survivors of the Inuit residence on Friday afternoon.

Both excuses fall short in the eyes of Sinclair and other prominent advocates of indigenous peoples. Not to mention Trudeau, who? urged “concrete action” from the church.

“We don’t have to accept his hollow apology — even if it was meaningful and necessary for some,” Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw attorney and chair in Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University, wrote, at the Toronto Star. “Apologies are best shown through concrete actions that should come before any request for forgiveness.”

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, chair of Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, said a papal apology at the very least changes the stories indigenous peoples can pass on to future generations.

“People will now have a story to tell their children and grandchildren about the Pope’s visit and his acknowledgment that this damage has been done,” she told POLITICO. “It will also help to explain to Canadians in general that this is the truth of the reconciliation story.”

But the apology itself won’t chart a path forward, Wesley-Esquimaux said. Seven years after the TRC report hit the desks of policymakers and the front pages of Canadian newspapers, she said it’s hard to know how to get the job done.

“I work for reconciliation every day. And I just call it the paradox of reconciliation,” she said. “We say all these things, but what do we do? What is the end goal? How do we know when we are there?”

Trudeau’s legacy among indigenous people depends on his administration’s ability to respond appropriately to those questions.

For Treaty 6 Grand Chief George Arcand Jr., the man whose lands the Pope expressed regret, the moment marked a fresh start.

“I see Pope Francis’ apology today only as a first step in the Church to make amends with our people,” he said. “After meeting (the) Pope and hearing his words, I believe there is a way forward together. There is a lot of work to be done.”

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