Catholic Canadians face ‘moment of crisis’ as Indigenous delegation heads to Vatican to demand residential schools apology

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Rose-Alma McDonald at St. Columban’s Catholic Church on March 23 in Cornwall, Ont.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

When friends ask Rose-Alma McDonald, “How can you still go to that church?” — and they often ask — the 68-year-old Mohawk from Akwesasne knows exactly where they’re coming from.

For much of the past year, the doors of his Catholic church were lined with hundreds of baby shoes, reminiscent of the unmarked graves located around the site of a former Catholic Church-run boarding school in Kamloops last June.

“Yes, it tested my faith,” said Ms McDonald, a lay minister. “It made me feel bad.”

Like many of Canada’s 11 million Catholics, McDonald will watch the developments of an Indigenous delegation’s visit to the Vatican later this month with nervous impatience. While she hopes the trip, along with a long-awaited papal apology on Canadian soil, can begin to reverse the church’s troubled relationship with Indigenous peoples, she knows that travel and regret alone won’t be enough.

“It’s a good idea, but it took so long. I think someone in the Vatican really dropped the ball,” Ms McDonald said of the delegation. “An apology might be a relief to some people, but what does that mean in terms of lost culture, lost language, trauma, intergenerational impacts of residential schools?

It’s been seven years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) called on the pope to apologize for abuses at Catholic residential schools. But it took the announcement from Kamloops last year — accompanied by an internal backlash from shocked church members — to spur the bishops of Canada and the Vatican to act.

Canadian bishops apologized last year and indigenous leaders will ask the pope to apologize when they meet with him next week in Rome.

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Now, these internal critics are urging the Church to move beyond apologies and address other Indigenous inequities. Doing too little, they say, risks further alienating a broad faction of Catholics who have grown weary of scandal and inaction.

“This is a time of crisis – existential crisis – for Catholics in the pews,” said Darren Dias, professor of theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. “They may have disagreed with the church’s teaching on artificial contraception or human sexuality, but now to see the church engaged in crimes and then cover-ups, it’s really hard for people. The question is: Will they change the church from within or will they just walk away?

The church’s belated apology for residential schools recalls its response to a decades-long sexual abuse crisis characterized by a lack of recognition, accountability and transparency, some Catholics say. The approach has been blamed on clericalism – the concentration of power and authority within a clergy that is unaccountable to the average faithful. Pope Francis has denounced clericalism and launched a mass consultation effort, called synodality, to foster a more participatory church.

A week after the Kamloops announcement, Prof Dias signed a petition of ‘worried Canadian Catholics’ demanding an apology from the Pope, $20 million in restitution for reconciliation efforts and money for reburials, if needed .

Today, he also wants to see the church champion the TRC’s Calls to Action – 94 recommendations covering everything from new legislation to education, health care and language rights.

The church responded to some of the furor over restitution last September when the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) announced a campaign to raise $30 million over five years for reconciliation efforts. But the announcement came amid fierce criticism from Indigenous groups and the CCCB’s own members over the failure to meet an earlier commitment of $25 million under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. This campaign ultimately only raised $3.7 million.

“It was clear to a number of people that raising $3.7 million at best did not seem like a genuine attempt,” said another petition signatory, Richard Alway, recently retired president of the Institute. Pontifical of Medieval Studies. “We are reviewing progress now. But it’s slow and it’s gradual.

Some Catholics think the money should come from the Holy See, not from Canadian collectible plates.

“I see the Vatican sitting on vast wealth,” said Toronto Catholic Carla DeSantis. “They could sell a painting or a property rather than turn around and ask parishioners to fund restitution.”

The federal government estimates that at least 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children attended approximately 140 residential schools between the 1880s and 1997. Government officials ordered school personnel to prohibit children from speaking their own language. Two of the TRC’s Calls to Action call on churches to educate clergy and congregations about Indigenous issues, as well as foster linguistic and cultural revitalization.

Some Catholics want to see greater commitment to these principles after the delegation’s visit to the Vatican.

“If the church wants to forge ties with Indigenous people, it should work with people like me to bring our language into the church,” said Rennie Nahanee, a Catholic deacon and elder of the Squamish Nation. “If they don’t, then what the church is doing is just public relations.”

Deacon Nahanee said the pope could also play a symbolic role in land claims issues by waiving several age-old decrees, called papal bulls, that granted Christian explorers the power to claim lands occupied by non-Christians. The decrees still underlie the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal concept that gives European countries sovereignty and title over claimed lands in the Age of Discovery. The CCCB rejected the concept in 2017, but a papal removal would make more sense.

“The Vatican has caused a lot of our problems today because of the Papal Bull and the Doctrine of Discovery,” Deacon Nahanee said. “The pope should give it up.”

During its 2,000 year history, the Catholic Church has resisted war, pestilence, fascism and famine by adhering to ancient doctrine. Change comes slowly, Ms. McDonald said. Born into a Catholic family, she left the church when she was young. “I don’t know how to put it nicely, but the church was too white for me,” she said. “I am a Mohawk woman in a Mohawk community. The priests they sent here were white and older and didn’t bother to understand our culture.

Twenty years ago, she returned, persuaded by the growing diversity among the clergy and the introduction of Mohawk traditions and rituals such as smudging and drumming into church services. “It’s definitely evolving,” she said, “which has been a long time coming.”

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