Problems with Pope's Vatican Apology and Upcoming Visit to Canada

The Pope Needs to Come Clean

– Philip Fernandez –

Métis delegation speaks to media during visit to Rome to meet with the Pope, March 28, 2022.

The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will visit Canada July 24 to 29. The announcement follows the Pope's promise to a delegation of Indigenous people from Canada earlier this year that he would come to Canada to fulfill Call 58 of the 94 Calls to Action of the historic 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Call 58 requires the Pope "issue an apology in Canada to Survivors, their families and communities" for the 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 co-ordinator of the papal visit to Canada said stops will be limited to three cities -- Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit -- because of the Pope's mobility issues.

On April 1, at the end of four days of meetings in the Vatican between the delegation of Indigenous people and Pope Francis, the latter gave an "apology" for the crimes committed against Indigenous children during the 150-year period of the Residential School System. The apology was not deemed satisfactory because he did not hold the Church responsible, saying these crimes were committed by some members of the Church. Nonetheless, the delegation graciously accepted it in "good faith" as a new beginning to be followed by "further actions" by the Pope.

The apology the Pope made at the Vatican was carefully worded, in order, as the Indigenous activist and author Tanya Talaga pointed out, "to avoid liability issues, to avoid what happens next."

The crux of his apology came when the Pope said: "I have said this to you and now I say it again. I feel shame -- sorrow and shame -- for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God's forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry." He also said in his final meeting that he looked forward to his trip to Canada to show his "closeness" with Indigenous peoples, again avoiding the word "apology."

In other words, the Catholic Church as a whole -- whose entire history is racist and colonial, whose hands are covered in the blood which enriched it through the European colonial project in the "New World" by murdering, enslaving and exploiting tens of millions of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and which took part in the colonial project in Canada to displace Indigenous peoples from their lands and to exterminate them as peoples -- is not to blame, just some bad apples who were not good Catholics. 

The Papal Bull called Inter Caetera (Demarcation) which decreed the "Doctrine of Discovery" was not written by a "few bad apples." It was proclaimed by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493.[1] In the words of the Gilder Lerhman Institute of American History, "The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be 'discovered,' claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that 'the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.' This 'Doctrine of Discovery' became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held 'that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.' In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished."

Furthermore, it is well known that many of the "bad apples" referred to by the Pope have in fact been protected from prosecution by the Catholic Church which has worked to cover up these crimes. 

The fact that the Pope refused to take direct responsibility for the crimes committed against Indigenous children in the residential schools and passed blame to the bad apples amongst the staff, is a problem because the policies were of the church, not of some bad apples. There is no remorse, no regret or guilt for wrongs committed in a manner which has consequences.

In the end, it is "business as usual" and the ongoing crimes of the Canadian state against Indigenous peoples continue to be enabled. The Catholic Church should be made to pay the reparations the Indigenous peoples ask for. They suffered so much that words cannot convey their losses.

On April 15, media announced that plans are being arranged between the Vatican and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for the Pope to come for his visit in late July. On April 25, Gerald Antoine, Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and Dene National Chief from the Northwest Territories, who led the AFN delegation to the Vatican, said that the AFN was not consulted in these plans and expressed disappointment.

Similarly, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said that she had not heard back from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops since giving a personal letter to Pope Francis after meeting him, inviting him to her territory. "My hope is that he visits a community within Canada that has been impacted by unmarked graves. It would be an absolute travesty if he didn't," she said.

What all this suggests is that a scenario is being hatched between the Vatican, the Catholic Church and the government of Canada, the two latter being the funders for the visit, to ensure that the Pope gets away with not answering for the Church's responsibility for its role in the Residential School Holocaust. The Pope's refusal to fully acknowledge the extent of the damage caused by his Church during the visit of the Indigenous delegation of survivors and their families to the Vatican does not bode well.

The way this trip is being planned, why should Canadians pay for it and all of the pomp, ceremony and security that come with such a visit? The entire affair sounds like another provocation by the Catholic Church and Trudeau government to continue to deny full responsibility, which will only pour salt on the wounds caused by the Residential School System. It would greenlight the ongoing crimes that the Canadian state is committing against the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.

All of this underscores the need for Indigenous peoples and the Canadian people to hold the Pope and the Catholic Church accountable during the papal visit for past and ongoing crimes and for not properly apologizing and compensating the victims commensurate with the horror of the Residential School System. It means stepping up the unity and political organizing by the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada to renew the constitution which relegates Indigenous peoples to third party status in Canada so as to negate their sovereign right to uphold their hereditary rights and to be who they say they are, not what the state tells them they are.

This will put an end to the colonial legacy that what are called liberal democratic institutions in Canada have brought forward into the present and make restitution for the historic crimes committed against Indigenous peoples. Far from being relics of the past, they continue to this day.

This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 5 - May 21, 2022

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