The Pope's Apology to Canadian Residential School Survivors ‘Left a Deep Hole’

Indigenous leaders say the apology didn't go far enough in part because Pope Francis didn't denounce the “Doctrine of Discovery” and blamed the atrocities on bad actors—not the institution.
Pope Francis dons a headdress during a visit with Indigenous peoples at Maskwaci, the former Ermineskin Residential School, Monday, July 25, 2022, in Maskwacis, Alberta
Pope Francis dons a headdress during a visit with Indigenous peoples at Maskwaci, the former Ermineskin Residential School, Monday, July 25, 2022, in Maskwacis, Alberta. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Some Indigenous leaders are pushing back on Pope Francis’ apology to Indigenous people in Canada for the “evils committed by so many Christians” against them in the country’s brutal residential school system.

The Pope addressed Indigenous elders and survivors Monday at a former residential school site in Maskwacis, Alberta, about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, where he said he is “sorry.”

“I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools,” the pope said. 

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It was a historic moment—but one that some say failed to meet the asks of so many survivors, family members, and Indigenous peoples across Canada. They say the apology failed to denounce historic justifications for colonialism, and that the pope placed the blame for the atrocities on a few bad Christian actors, as opposed to the Catholic Church itself. 

Murray Sinclair, former chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the residential school system, said the pope “left a deep hole” by failing to acknowledge the “full role of the Church in the Residential School system.”

“I want to recognize the importance of the pope’s apology to survivors, their families, and communities,” Sinclair said. “For many survivors, I know that hearing the words of contrition from the pope was, and is, an important factor in their personal recoveries and growth.”

Yet the speech failed to denounce the “Doctrine of Discovery”—a historical colonial justification by European monarchies to seize lands inhabited by non-Christian, Indigenous nations—and didn’t acknowledge the “concerted institutional effort” of the Church to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their communities and families, Sinclair said.

“Catholic leaders not only enabled the Government of Canada but pushed it even further in its work to commit cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples. In many instances, it was not just a collaboration, but an instigation,” Sinclair said.

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Last year, Canada’s brutal residential school history burst into international news after Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had detected more than 200 unmarked graves of Indigenous children at a former residential school site. The news inspired other Indigenous Nations across Canada to scan other sites, with more than 1,000 confirmed in 2021 alone. Thousands more are expected.  

The government and churches ran residential “schools” across Canada to forcibly assimilate 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children from the late 1800s until the mid-1990s. 

Children were physically and sexually abused, and brutally punished for expressing their Indigenous identities, including speaking in their mother tongues. More than half of the schools were run by the Catholic Church. 

The nationwide truth and reconciliation commission that investigated Canada’s residential school system came out with 94 calls to action in 2015. One of the calls demands an apology from the pope to all survivors: “We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said the pope “has not met the full TRC call to action #58,” and that she hopes he will complete his apology before his multi-day trip in Canada ends. The pope is on a cross-country tour in Canada, with stops in Edmonton, Quebec City, and Iqaluit. 

Cindy Blackstock, a well-known advocate, published a “to-do” list for the pope following his apology, including denouncing the doctrine of discovery and repatriating land, artifacts, records, and human remains that were taken from Indigenous nations. 

“The most important time is the day after the apology,” she said. “First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children who attended residential schools and suffered so deeply and those who died there deserve this and more.” 

Some Indigenous leaders and community members were also disappointed that Wilton Littlechild, honorary chief of Ermineskin First Nation, presented the Pope with a traditional headdress. “To give our most sacred items to those who, perhaps demonstrate goodwill, but don't deliver on the promises is just very upsetting, and it's also very degrading to our own ceremonial items,” Professor of Indigenous Studies at University of Manitoba Niigaan Sinclair told CBC News.

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