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Pope’s Apology for Residential School Trauma Should Reignite Calls for Action

Last week, Pope Francis visited Canada on what the papacy described as a ‘penitential pilgrimage’ between the Catholic Church and Indigenous people for its role in the residential school system. It was seen by many as a step towards reconciliation, and a direct acknowledgment of the role the Catholic Church played in an act of genocide, a term the Pope himself used to describe the damage committed to Indigenous children through the residential school system.

“This was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” the Pope said in Maskwacis, Alberta. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples. An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of residential schools.”

It is not common for a leader of religion to issue an apology for crimes that have been committed under the banner of their faith, and the Pope taking an active role in condemning the actions committed in those Catholic residential schools is an important step towards reconciliation.

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Its an acknowledgment that elicits a wide range of emotions from many people across the country. It is not up to me, as an elected official, or as a non-Indigenous Canadian, to say whether Pope Francis’ apology is acceptable, because the apology was not meant for me. It was an apology to survivors and their families. But it is important because it reminds us of the work that still needs to be done to further reconciliation.

A papal apology was one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. Of those, Calls 58-61 are directly linked to the actions of the Catholic Church, and how they address their role in the residential school system.  It’s vital that the papal apology (Call 58) not be seen as an endpoint for the church, but as a beginning: a place from which to start the process of healing for their role in what the Pope himself has called a genocide.

The Catholic Church worked in conjunction with the Federal government in establishing and perpetuating the Residential School System. As such, if they are committed to reconciliation, as Pope Francis has indicated, they must also be committed to shining a light on the history of the system. This should clearly include the Catholic Church fully cooperating with all further investigations and providing any documentation related to the system available for survivors, police, and local governments. It’s vital that the church apologize and recognize its role in the residential school system while also providing information that may be vital to its history and any potential crimes that may have been perpetrated. An apology does not mean much if it is not backed up by action to correct the horrendous deeds that have been perpetrated.

Further, it’s important that we must remind ourselves that we still have a significant amount of work to do if we are to complete the TRCs 94 Calls to Action. We have merely scratched the surface of that work. The Research Director of the Yellowhead Institute, Indigenous-led research, and education centre at Toronto Metropolitan University has stated that only 11 of those calls have been completed since the TRCs final report was tabled in 2015. This work must continue if we are to correct the historical inequities faced by Indigenous peoples, who continue to face barriers to education, justice, health care, and even clean drinking water.

It’s also important that the House of Commons recognize that what occurred to Indigenous people was genocide. My colleague Leah Gazan tried to pass a unanimous consent motion last year to call what unfolded inside residential schools a genocide, based on the United Nations definition of the term, but the motion was defeated as some MPs did not support it. She will be presenting a similar motion in the Fall, and given that the Pope has deemed it as such, and given the magnitude of what we continue to learn about the damage the residential school system has done, perhaps those dissenting voices will finally acknowledge the darkest chapter in Canada’s history for what it is.

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