ROME – Several Canadian bishops and indigenous leaders have joined the chorus of mounting calls for Pope Francis to issue a formal apology after the remains of over 200 children were found at a former indigenous residential school in Canada.
Speaking to Crux, Bishop Joseph Nguyen of Kamloops, where the remains were found, said that he has “the deepest respect” for the words of sorrow and comfort Pope Francis has already offered in the wake of the discovery.
“The Holy Father is a person of deep sincerity and compassion,” he said. However, “Many of our people seek to understand more fully the reasons why an official apology from Pope Francis may still be pending.”
On May 30, it was reported that the remains of 215 children had been discovered on the grounds of the Indian Residential School in Kamloops, which was founded in 1890 and at one point had been Canada’s largest indigenous boarding school and was run by both the local Catholic Church and Canadian government. The school closed in 1978.
At the time when residential schools were still operational in Canada, roughly two thirds of them were run by Catholic missionary orders with the aim of assimilating indigenous children to Canadian culture.
Over the years, these schools gained an infamous reputation as survivors began telling stories of physical and sexual abuse, as well as beatings or other strict corporal punishments when children spoke their native language.
The discovery of the remains sparked massive public outcry and criticism of both the Canadian government, and the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis acknowledged the issue in remarks during his June 6 Angelus address, saying he was close to all those “who have been traumatized by the shocking news,” but he did not apologize.
Since then, calls have increased for him to make a formal public apology for the crimes and abuses committed against indigenous children at the schools on behalf of the Catholic Church.
David Chartrand, President of the Manitoba Metis Federation, the largest Metis government in Canada, and vice president and spokesman of the Metis National Council, told Crux he believes a papal apology “should be given.”
“The pope carries the voice of the world, so when you look at it from that aspect, I think the most fitting is for him to do that, because it carries a very powerful message that the Church understands, understands they did wrong,” Chartrand said.
Chartrand never went to a residential school, as most had already closed by the time he was school aged, but attended a provincial school and was taught by Catholic nuns who had been transferred when the residential schools were shut down.
Even in the provincial schools, many children, himself included, would be whipped on their wrists with a rubber-coated metal stick for speaking their native languages, he said.
If this form of punishment failed, Chartrand said a circle was drawn on the chalk board, and children were made to stand on their tip toes to keep their nose in the circle. If their legs tired and started to stand down, the back of their calves would be whipped to keep them on their toes.
Chartrand said he was also forced to endure humiliating punishments in front of his whole class because his hair was too long. His mother, a devout Catholic who didn’t speak English, told him to cut it when she found out about the punishments.
It is because of incidents like this Chartrand says he understands the anger and hurt that many still feel, but says that for him personally, “I’m past it. They didn’t break me. They didn’t break who I am.”
A devout Catholic to this day, Chartrand insisted that not everyone in the Church is bad, but that of the few who were guilty of the mistreatment and abuses he and his peers suffered at the schools, “they did so much damage.”
A papal apology would also help to achieve “reconciliation and healing,” he said, adding, “I think it would be fitting that he does it sooner rather than later.”
Bishop Thomas Dowd of Sault Ste. Marie, in Ontario, said he also believes the pope should apologize.
Speaking to Crux, Dowd said that “the discovery of remains in Kamloops has been a huge deal, huge. From the day it was found, it was news every day for 10 days. Not a lot of news stories stay front page for 10 days.”
“For the Church, I think it’s fair to say that this has hit us like a nuclear bomb. It’s exposed a grievous wound,” he said, noting that even in his diocese, which is on the other side of the country from Kamloops, there were public displays of remembrance of protest in the days after the discovery in which people placed small pairs of shoes on the cathedral’s steps.
What the Catholic Church is facing severe criticism for is “the perceived lack of an apology,” Dowd said. “I would say that for a lot of people we appear callous. Canadians are the ones who say sorry before they’ve even done something, so it just doesn’t compute in our culture. Why would you not have apologized?”
The problem, he said, is that once the atrocities committed at residential schools were made known, the Protestant churches that were involved, including the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, were involved as a church and therefore, when they apologized, they spoke on behalf of the entire church.
However, “the Catholic Church was involved not as the Catholic Church of Canada, but as the various religious orders that ran residential schools and in a couple of cases, some dioceses, but those dioceses were missionary dioceses, so whether it was a missionary order or missionary diocese, they were contracted by the government to run the residential schools,” Dowd said.
Over time, individual orders and dioceses have apologized, but Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – which was from 2008 to 2015 and organized by the various parties involved in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – said these “patchwork” apologies, while genuine, had little impact.
Overall, the sense, Dowd said, was that the apologies “haven’t happened in a way that even many indigenous people are aware of them,” so the commissioned asked the Church to apologize “as a collective.”
Since the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was never itself involved in running the residential schools, Dowd said, it was decided that the pope best represents the Church as a body, and therefore, a formal apology from him would be the best way to get the message across.
Asked whether he believes the pope should apologize, Dowd said, “I do,” but cautioned against getting “tripped up because we are looking for something that can close this chapter, turn the page.”
“I call this ‘turn the page-ism,’ but it’s a false hope,” he said, voicing his belief that even with an apology, the issue is one that will always be present in Canadian society, and will require time and effort for real healing to happen.
Currently the Canadian bishops have been coordinating at various levels with several different indigenous communities in Canada – including the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit national organizations – to prepare a delegation of Indigenous people to meet with Pope Francis in order to foster “meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing.”
The visit, which has been in the works for the past two years, was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the bishops insisted that they are committed to moving forward in bringing the delegations to Rome by the end of 2021.
According to Chartrand, the visit is currently being planned for November 2021, and will include roughly 25 members of the different indigenous communities.
While the delay in the trip is disappointing, “maybe it needed to happen this way because maybe there’s more that needs to be done and said and clarified,” he said, voicing hope that those who participate will “come back and tell the story of what happened, and tell the people that there is hope, there’s a chance, and we need to work together.”
Yet in addition to the problem of the residential schools, Chartrand said he also wants to discuss other issues with the pope, such as drug and alcohol addiction, suicides.
Chartrand said he also wants to discuss how to get people back to Mass and what to do with churches that are important to the community, but which are increasingly hard to maintain because there are fewer and fewer faithful in the pews.
He also wants to talk about how the Church can recover its image, saying, “The church unfortunately has done so much damage to so many people, to even destroy the soul of the person. How do you overcome that?”
Nguyen said his hope for the visit is that it will “deepen the on-going dialogue and help to foster “meaningful encounters of healing and reconciliation.” The best way for indigenous communities to be supported by the Church, he said, is “by our humble listening presence.”
“I am committed to an accompaniment that respects and honors their dignity and value. I also ask all faithful in the diocese to be united in prayer and solidarity by living out the command of the Lord ‘Love one another as I love you,’” he said.
Dowd said he is happy that the delegation is finally going to Rome, and hopes the meeting with the pope “will involve an apology.”
“I think there’s an opportunity here,” he said, adding, “we as a Church, what we’re being asked to do frankly is live up to our ideals. We’re being asked to live up to what we preach, and I’m okay with that. I want to live up to what we preach.”
At the moment, “there’s a bit of a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ happening between the Church and Canadian society,” Dowd said. “It doesn’t mean there isn’t an attempt at dialogue, but duck-and-cover isn’t the best response to the public outrage.”
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