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Justin Trudeau Says the Pope Should Say Sorry for Abuse of Aboriginal People in Canada

Trudeau promised to ask for Pope Francis’ mea culpa on Wednesday, after a meeting designed to start the process towards reconciliation with Aboriginal people who were forced into a residential school system rife with abuse.

by Justin Ling
Dec 16 2015, 8:15pm

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expecting to have a tete-a-tete with the head of the Catholic Church in order to ask for his Holiness to apologize for the century of abuse inflicted on Canada's indigenous people in the church-run residential schools.

Trudeau made the promise to ask for Pope Francis' mea culpa on Wednesday, after a meeting designed to start the process towards reconciliation between Ottawa and the generations of Aboriginal people who were taken from their homes and forced into a residential school system rife with abuse.

The start of the "new era" of Canada's relationship with the territory's Aboriginal peoples comes after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report on Tuesday. Amongst its 4,000 pages of testimony and historical accounts were 94 calls to action, drawing a roadmap for how Canada could repair its fractured relationship with its indigenous peoples.

Those recommendations were sketched out in an interim report, published last June. The report called on the government to do everything from re-invest in Aboriginal media to bridge the health gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

At the time, now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to adopt all the recommendations of the report.

But many of the calls to action are targeted at municipalities, provincial governments, and the Catholic Church itself.

"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," the report reads.

Related: Canada Launches Inquiry Into Murdered Aboriginal Women and Opens the Door to Repealing 'Racist' Indian Act

The report said that the Vatican's statement should resemble the 2010 apology made to Irish victims of sexual abuse that happened in the church.

But on Wednesday, Trudeau inserted himself in that recommendation and said he would be spending some political capital to make it happen.

"I am certainly intending to work with the Catholic church, including with the Holy See, to move forward on implementing that recommendation, to ask him directly to engage with this issue," he said. 

While he admitted to media on Wednesday that he has no power to compel the Pope, he did say he "[looks] forward to having a conversation with his Holiness about this." 

Trudeau, himself a Catholic, has had a strained relationship with the the church in Canada. During the election campaign, Trudeau and pro-life activists got into a war of words over his decision to ban anti-abortion members from his party.

Eliciting an apology from his Holiness may end up being one of the easier action items from the report.

The report calls for a strategy to protect and promote Aboriginal languages, asks the government to address the substantial over-representation of aboriginal people in Canadian prisons, and to issue a new royal proclamation to, amongst other things, "repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands."

The original royal proclamation of 1763 was issued by King George III, and still informs various aspects of the legal relationship between aboriginal people and Canada.

Given the substantial task of addressing all the recommendations, Trudeau began the process immediately by meeting with leaders of several Aboriginal groups on Parliament Hill to discuss steps forward. On Tuesday, he committed to "design a national engagement strategy for developing and implementing a national reconciliation framework."

While it's unclear what exactly that process will look like, the Liberal Government has already begun moving forward on several recommendations, including the establishment of an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, repealing legislation that negatively and disproportionately affects indigenous peoples, and lifting the two percent funding cap for education and services delivered from Ottawa to First Nations communities.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling