First Nations leaders seek concrete action from the Catholic Church

·5 min read

Following an emotional week that saw Pope Francis make various statements expressing sorrow and shame for the role of Catholics in the residential school system, First Nations leaders are ready to move on to what happens next.

While the Pope apologized multiple times for the “the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous people”, it wasn’t until directly questioned on the flight back to the Vatican by Ojibway journalist Brittany Hobson that he considered the residential school system a “genocide”, explaining the term hadn’t previously come to mind.

On August 2, NDP MP Leah Gazan said she is planning to present a motion to have the Canadian Parliament acknowledge the system as genocide. She had unsuccessfully attempted to get unanimous consent from MPs in the House of Commons about use of the term last year.

“Having the experience of residential school survivors continually up for debate is another act of violence,” said Gazan. “I hope that Members of Parliament who are really committed to reconciliation, committed to justice, will finally recognize what happened in residential schools for exactly what it was, which was a genocide.”

Cindy Blackstock, the head of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, believes that public pressure on the church and government following last summer’s discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential school sites played a critical role in the Pope’s apology and will be important to continue pushing the Catholic Church to make meaningful change.

“That pressure has to be on them,” Blackstock told APTN. “We can’t let them get away with, ‘Oh well, it takes a long time. Change doesn’t happen overnight or this is a good first step.’ None of that. No. They are big, they are well resourced, they could make these changes.”

Blackstock thinks the Canadian government could take steps to make the Catholic Church pay the financial compensation it still owes residential school survivors, such as revoking the Church’s charitable tax status in Canada, speaking out against the Holy See at international human-rights reviews and ensuring the Vatican Bank itself is accountable.

While people had diverse reactions to the Pope’s words of contrition, a common criticism was that his apologies were for the actions of Catholic individuals implementing these oppressive systems rather than for the Church as a collective institution.

“When you don’t accept the responsibility that your institution has breached so many human rights, done so much harm to children, and you’re still not at a place of accepting accountability, then there’s a real question as to what you’re going to do in terms of reforming your behaviour,” said Blackstock. “And that’s the piece that’s left out of the apology.”

In an apparent attempt to address this shortcoming, Pope Francis said during his first talk since returning to the Vatican that he had gone to Canada “to ask forgiveness in the name of the Church.” He said that priests, nuns and other Catholics had “participated in programs that today we understand are unacceptable and contrary to the Gospel.”

Throughout the Pope’s visit, Indigenous people repeatedly demanded that the Church release all residential school records and rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th century papal edicts which lay the foundations of colonialist subjugation that culminated in these schools.

Asked directly about the doctrine, Francis referred instead to a “doctrine of colonization” that continues to exist today and must be changed. Theology experts suggest the Church hasn’t rescinded the doctrine because other edicts have already replaced it, so they don’t consider it has any standing.

“The bull Inter Caetera is a historic remnant with no juridical, moral or doctrinal value,” the Vatican stated at a United Nations forum for Indigenous issues in 2010. “The Holy See confirms that Inter Caetera has already been abrogated and considers it without any legal or doctrinal value.”

Days before the Canadian visit, the Vatican stated “a reflection” about the doctrine is currently underway. While some have speculated the Church is reluctant to remind the world about its history of destructive influence, Indigenous activism has brought the issue to the forefront.

“We understand the desire to name these texts, acknowledge their impact and renounce the concepts associated with them,” said Jonathan Lesarge on behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The Bishops of Canada are working with the Vatican and those who have studied this issue, with the goal of issuing a new statement from the Church.”

Although Canada denounced the doctrine when implementing Bill C-15 regarding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, calling it “racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust”, adopting this position in the high court could dismantle a core component of Canada’s sovereignty claim, impacting modern rulings on Indigenous rights and title.

At a protest in Montreal organized by a Kahnawake women’s group known as the Mohawk Mothers, spokesperson Kwetiio said the Pope should revoke the doctrine if he’s serious about making things right. They called his apology meaningless without action and said the 30-metre cross atop Mount Royal represents a painful reminder of residential schools.

“I would like that cross to be taken down,” said Kwetiio. “There’s a symbol of that power that comes over us and that’s just cruel. You’ve tried to commit genocide on us, yet this symbol still stands everywhere we look. We need the people who live on this island with us to understand what has happened to us and that we’re not going to allow it to continue.”

The group argued the $35 million cost of the Pope’s visit could have been better spent addressing infrastructure issues or compensating for lands taken from Indigenous peoples. Local Indigenous day shelter Resilience Montreal added that although the apology represented a step towards healing for some, “it fails to address the impacts of deep intergenerational trauma that many continue to experience daily.”

“If churches genuinely believe in reconciliation,” the organization stated, “they will direct funds towards projects like Resilience Montreal, which welcomes those deemed ‘too damaged’ to be granted not only opportunities to heal, but often even basic dignity.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation