Popeing Ain’t Easy…

Last year when the first unmarked graves in Kamloops were located, it became a flash point for Indigenous people, allies, and activists who had always known that these children were on the grounds of the former residential schools. Still, horrific memories surfaced for survivors and their families and communities.

What became very interesting—and what I am still thinking through—is the desire that emerged for the Pope of the Catholic Church to apologize for the abuse perpetrated against Indigenous children and families through the residential school system. A delegation of Indigenous people even travelled to the Vatican in the Spring of 2022 to demand such an apology from the head of the church. It was a unique and monumental event but no one went with any expectations other than to speak their truth. The request was simple: come to our communities and speak to and in front of the people that were harmed by the institution created and run by the church.

Later in 2022, when it was announced that the Pope would be coming to Canada, many people were excited about the possibilities—what he might say, where he might go. But there were also people who were skeptical and reluctant, people who had concerns about what histories and memories might be brought up and how genuine the forthcoming apology would be. Would this visit do more harm than good?

Many Indigenous folks still have resentment and anger about the residential school system and the atrocities that they experienced. Would a visit from the pope do anything? Could an apology be a start to healing? Would an apology on its own be enough?

As I watched the events and news coverage during the week that the Pope was in Canada, it became very clear very quickly that he was not going to speak about the sexual abuse at the residential schools or make any statements or promises about moving forward with the Indigenous people in Canada. He did apologize, but only for the “individuals” who did wrong; the apology was worded in a way that abstained from admitting the church’s culpability.

Maybe this is naive but I, for one, was surprised that he did not say more about the schools—condemning them, admitting they were a mistake or that harm was done in institutions funded and run by the church for decades. I was surprised that he didn’t mention the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept of colonial law that justified and legitimized the colonization and evangelization issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452.

The idea that Christian European monarchies like England and France and Spain could claim land that did not belong to them, paved the way for the residential school system policies such as the Indian Act.

The pope’s visit and apology were hailed as “historic” in the press. But another story that didn’t get much press during the pope’s visit has to do with the fact that the Catholic Church has promised residential school survivors over $79 million but only put $4.6 million into the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund to date. (And while we’re talking about promising things without following through, our federal government spent $35 million of taxpayer money on the pope’s visit even though there is still unsafe drinking water in 94 First Nations communities, despite the government’s to end all long-term drinking water advisories by 2020).

As Dr. Dustin Louie teaches in The Federation’s Transformative Reconciliation program, reconciliation is not just about apologizing for past harm. It is about creating new and equitable relationships; it is about changing the conditions in which we are living and existing with one another.

The apology from the pope meant something to many people. I don’t want to take away from that. But promises are still getting broken, Indigenous people in Canada are still getting neglected, and the legacy of residential schools is still destroying families and communities. How genuine do you think that apology was when the thoughts, beliefs and systems that oppress and neglect Indigenous people still exist?

What would truly be historic is if the Catholic Church rescinded the Doctrine of Discovery. Or fully financed its Indigenous Reconciliation Fund as promised (which it can absolutely afford to do). Or adopted the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action directed at the Catholic Church (numbers 58–61, which are also directed at other faith groups and spiritual leaders).

For me, a good, genuine apology doesn’t just admit a mistake, it admits the impact of the harm or error and lays out how the situation will be made right. A good apology is not an end, it is a beginning. It doesn’t close the book on a mistake, it opens the lines of communication and creates space for communication, understanding, and accountability.

I hope the next generation of Indigenous people gets that kind of apology.

Riley McKenzie, Indigenous Advisor