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Indigenous historians say more than an apology is needed from the Catholic Church


After the much-anticipated meeting between Pope Francis and a group of Indigenous delegates was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the delegation is now scheduled to meet with the Pope next week.

Made up of Indigenous elders, residential school survivors, and youth, the group of about 30 delegates is headed to the Vatican in hopes of securing an apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church’s involvement with Canada’s residential schools.

Crystal Gail Fraser, a Gwichya Gwich'in assistant professor in history and native studies at the University of Alberta, said that she’s unsure of what exactly a meeting with the Pope will achieve.

“This meeting is historic, but for me, this expectation of an apology has been long gone,” she told in a phone interview. “If an apology was on the table, it would have already happened and I'm not sure, for the broader survivor community in Canada, what this meeting is going to accomplish.”

Various apologies have been made throughout the years by several Canadian churches, politicians, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Most notably, former prime minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canadians for the Indian residential schools system in June of 2008.

“The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly,” he said at the time.

Among the 94 calls to action released by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 is an apology from the pope for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” In 2018, however, the Catholic Church issued a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stating that Pope Francis would not deliver an apology.

Fraser said she realizes that an apology may have great meaning for some Indigenous and intergenerational survivors, particularly for those who are members of the Catholic Church themselves.

“To receive an apology, that is when the healing process can start [and] it can be a marker of the end of grief,” she said. “If this would improve the life or the lives of direct survivors and intergenerational survivors, then I'm definitely supportive of that.”

But she stressed that a meaningful apology must be followed by action.


Daniel Paul, a Mi'kmaq elder and historian, echoed this sentiment. An apology from the Catholic Church for its role in Canada’s residential schools doesn’t go far enough to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, he said.

“I don't think it matters anymore,” he told in a phone interview. “There's something more substantial I’d like to see: an apology for the doctrine of discovery and [to] repudiate it.”

Paul is referring to a legal framework established in 1493 that stemmed from a series of papal bulls, or formal statements from the pope. The doctrine of discovery allowed European explorers to claim land as their own, regardless of its original inhabitants.

“It justified the whole project of colonialism and colonization,” Fraser explained.

Fraser, Paul and Indigenous groups are calling for an acknowledgement of the doctrine’s damaging impact on Indigenous peoples, and asking that it be revoked.

“I would like to see the Pope repudiate the doctrine of discovery,” said Paul. “Several Christian denominations have repudiated it, but the document itself belongs to the Pope in Rome.”

Fraser also called on the Catholic Church to honour its legal obligations to compensate survivors through the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. In November, it was reported that a ruling handed down in 2015 by a Saskatchewan judge released the Catholic Church from settlement obligations to residential school survivors. The deal excused church groups from making $79 million worth of payments and in-kind services to survivors under the agreement.

Fraser also pointed to a number of Indigenous artifacts currently on display in the Vatican Museums. Part of the path to reconciliation involves returning these items to their owners, she said.

“How are those items being repatriated?” she said. “The Catholic Church does not own those pieces, and in many cases, they may have spiritual or ancestral significance.”


But perhaps the main form of accountability comes through more transparency around the overall operation of Canada’s residential school system, said Fraser. This includes releasing many more residential school records and making them easier to access, she said.

“I think the reason why we're having this conversation, which is sometimes overlooked or gets lost, is because of the thousands of children who died at Indian residential schools and the unmarked graves,” she said. “We're never going to have the full picture but this archival bit would be so significant to our understanding of what actually happened.”

In October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a group of Tk'emlups te Secwepemc leaders, residential school survivors and their families that “all the records in possession of the federal government have already been turned over" to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), based in Winnipeg.

The centre, however, said it was still waiting for these records, which include final versions of school narratives and supporting documents assessed for compensation claims stemming from abuse at the institutions. More recently, the federal government announced it had signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the NCTR that outlines how and when it will release thousands more of these residential school records. However, an exact timeline has not been made public.

According to Fraser, many more student deaths are likely to be found in those archival documents. Access to these records and accountability from the church and state regarding their roles in residential schools is key not just in helping community members heal, but forging a true path to reconciliation.

“I'm still going back to this question about accountability…I don't think accountability is simply an apology,” she said. “If somebody came to your home, smashed out all the windows and then said, ‘I'm sorry about that,’ would you still not expect them to replace the windows?

“We just haven't seen that done.” Top Stories

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