Canada’s parliament has voted overwhelmingly to ask Pope Francis to formally apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in running Canada’s residential schools. Opposed only by Conservative backbenchers, Tuesday’s motion was carried with 269 in favour and 10 against.
Between the mid-1800s and 1996, Canada separated 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and forced them into schools run by churches, including the Catholic Church, in a system the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) said amounted to cultural genocide. The TRC found that more than 30,000 children were sexually abused in these schools, and 6,000 died.
Despite calls from Indigenous leaders, the TRC and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Catholic Church has refused to apologize, stating in a letter last month that Pope Francis cannot personally apologize for residential schools.
In 1990, Phil Fontaine, head of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, became one of the first to demand an apology from the Catholic Church. In its 94 “calls to action,” published in 2015, the TRC called on the Pope to apologize within one year for the church’s “role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children.”
During a visit to the Vatican last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau again asked Pope Francis to apologize to survivors. But in late March, the Catholic Church released a letter saying the Pope cannot personally apologize for the church’s role in Canadian residential schools.
While other churches have apologized for running these schools, the Catholic Church has remained stubborn. Between the 1980s and 2015, the United Church of Canada, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Presbyterian and Anglican churches and the Jesuits in English Canada, all issued apologies to survivors.
'HISTORIC DAY FOR OUR COUNTRY'
Ahead of the vote, NDP MP Charlie Angus, one of two NDP MPs who put forward the motion, called on members across party lines to support it.
“This is a historic day for our country,” he said. “We have so much to do on the work of reconciliation. We are far from done.”
An apology would show the Church was working with Canada on reconciliation, he added.
Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, joined Angus in urging MPs to “do the right thing” and support the motion.
Fiddler drew attention to one infamous school operated by the church, St. Anne’s in Fort Albany.
“St. Anne’s was probably the most notorious residential school that operated in this country,” he said. “They even had a homemade electric chair that they used to terrorize children and to punish children that spoke their language.”
“It’s time that the Church finally does the right thing,” he continued. “In order for true reconciliation to happen in this country, the Church needs to do their part as well.”
Before the vote, Angus asked Indigenous Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett what the government had done to encourage a Papal apology. She replied that she had requested a meeting with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the group that said the Pope wouldn’t apologize.