Indigenous communities are waiting for a new apology – and a commitment to justice


Only in recent decades have survivors of the residential school system spoken publicly about the injustices they endured in these colonial school systems.

More recently, governments, organizations and institutions have initiated acts of reconciliation, particularly in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its calls to action.

Although an apology was offered, many survivors eagerly awaited an apology from the Pope in Canada.

Read more: Residential schools: what does it mean if the pope apologizes to Canada?

Pope Francis will visit Canada July 24-29. Many hope he will issue an additional apology — an apology full of accountability and institutional responsibility, unlike those issued to the Vatican on April 1.

years of research

As a member of the Kainai (Blood Tribe), part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, it took me years of research to understand the connection between the eerie, heavy silences that I recognized as a child but could not name and the devastation caused by colonialism inflicted by the Canadian government and Christian churches through the residential school system.

Part of my research consisted of articulating my journey and that of my community by navigating through the written archives of the Roman Catholic order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. These records contained information about our people, and we used them to identify our ancestors and research the colonial education system on the Blood reservation. The Oblates came to the Blood Reserve and opened a boarding school, as did representatives of the Anglican Church. Representatives of the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist denominations participated in the administration of the colonial schools on the Blood reservation.

Earlier statement made in Rome

TRC Call to Action #58 calls on the Pope to “apologize to survivors, their families and communities for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual relations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. children in Catholic boarding schools”, and to do so in Canada.

An apology consistent with this call would help demonstrate the responsibility of Roman Catholics in the colonial education system.

Pope Francis’ first apology, in April, focused on cultural abuses suffered by indigenous peoples. He said:

“The chain that transmitted knowledge and ways of life in union with the land has been broken by colonization that has disrespected you, torn many of you from your vital environment and tempted you to conform to another mentality. In this way, great harm has been done to your identity and culture…following programs designed in offices rather than a desire to respect peoples lives.

A statement like this blames colonization and fails to recognize the role of the Catholic Church in supporting these negative colonial outcomes for Indigenous peoples.

Pope Francis also said, “I feel shame…in the abuse you have suffered and in the lack of respect for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.” It is to this extent that the pope has acknowledged the specific types of abuse that indigenous children have suffered at the hands of religious members.

Read more: The Catholic Church’s response to sexual abuse must focus on the welfare of survivors, not defensiveness

Pope Francis failed to address how Catholic residential schools negatively impacted generations of Indigenous people through spiritual, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Nor did he formulate a formal plan for how the Catholic Church would attempt to walk the path of reconciliation.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed, Inuit community member Martha Greig and Bishops Richard Gagnon and William McGrattan attend a press conference in Rome on March 28, 2022.
(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Truth, justice, relationships

Many of us hope that the visit of Pope Francis will bring new, more heartfelt apologies.

The Pope must set foot in our communities and on our reserves. He must see the lasting impacts that the Catholic Church has had. It must have conversations, build relationships and be responsive to the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. He must learn that healing and reconciliation will be different in different communities.

The Pope must make a plan with us, not for us, in order to walk the path of reconciliation.

If the Pope cannot provide a plan while he is here, due to the short visit, he can set things in motion. Indigenous peoples need more than words. Pope Francis is expected to commit to timelines for official actions and plans.

These plans should include commitments for Catholic Church officials with high-level decision-making authority to work with Indigenous communities, and to respond to all Church-related TRC Calls to Action. Catholic and to meet any additional needs.

How to move forward

As someone who has researched the colonial school and learned from other experts and elders in my community, I offer the following suggestions on how to move forward. This is by no means an exhaustive list:

Read more: Indigenous lawyer: Investigation into discovery of 215 children’s graves in Kamloops as a crime against humanity

As Pope Francis said in his April statement, “Whenever memory and identity are cherished and protected, we become more human.”

Let’s see how the Pope will cherish and protect the memory and identity of indigenous peoples by committing to truth and justice. Such actions will help the world to see that we are human beings, that colonization and the colonial education system robbed us of.

If you are an Indian residential school survivor or have been impacted by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.


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