'A whole Everest to climb'
A long-awaited beginning
Before a crowd in Maskwacis, Alta., this week, Pope Francis offered up an apology years in the making.
“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry,” he said Monday. When a translator read out his words in English, a wave of applause moved through the crowd at Maskwa Park, which included residential school survivors.
The Pope continued: “…I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
His words were a milestone in a decades-long fight by survivors to get the Catholic Church to recognize its role in not only the residential school system but colonization more broadly.
The Pope’s presence this week — and his words — in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut have prompted a range of reaction among First Nations, Inuit and Métis people across the country, particularly survivors and their families. As Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald told Matteo: “There isn’t one thing to say about this papal visit that everyone would agree on.”
“There’s mixed emotions: anger, frustration, celebration, hope, optimism, pessimism. It’s a whole range,” Matteo tells me. On the one hand, the Pope’s apology is welcome — in fact, it’s one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. But, he points out, the TRC asked for that apology within a year. “And here we are, seven years later.”
“So I think it’s a difficult thing to process for a lot of people,” he explains. “For some, the apology was welcomed and it brought healing. For some, the apology will never be enough; it was triggering and it brought back a lot of painful memories. Even speaking with my own family members, I can attest. It was a long, emotional week for many of us who’ve felt the earthquakes and aftershocks of a genocidal system and policies.”
Which is what makes the Pope’s apology a historic moment, if an imperfect one. Though the pontiff sought forgiveness for “the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples,” not everyone feels his apology was complete.
“For many, there was a lot missing from the papal apologies,” Matteo says. He points out that the pontiff’s statement on Monday did not mention day school survivors or those children who never returned home after being forced to attend residential schools. The initial apology also acknowledged “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual” harms at these institutions but did not specifically mention the sexual abuse some survivors experienced, though Matteo notes the Pope spoke about sexual abuse directly during his visit to Quebec later in the week.
“That’s credit to him and how he has demonstrated that he is listening,” Matteo says.
Missing, too, was recognition of the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system — the Pope’s words blamed individual Christians but failed to acknowledge the church’s responsibility as an institution. Even the prime minister echoed calls from some survivors urging the Pope to name these abuses.
Regardless of how the apology was received, one thing seems to be universally understood: this is only the beginning.
“In a lot of ways, I think, this week has been a sort of trial for the Catholic Church,” Matteo explains. “It’s been five days of questions, critiques and celebrations. There’s been an expression of guilt by Pope Francis, the visit itself is an act to make amends. But make no mistake, the work is just the beginning.
“Many see the visit as a first step. But I’ll repeat what I heard from National Chief RoseAnne Archibald: this is about survivors of residential schools and their legacy. So for Chief RoseAnne and for many, that first step has to be concrete action towards healing.”
Beyond an apology, many Indigenous Peoples are calling on the Catholic Church to repatriate artifacts stolen from those communities (some of which now sit on display in the Vatican Museum), release residential school records that could help piece together what happened at Catholic-run institutions and rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century religious document used to justify the colonization and forced assimilation of Indigenous Peoples around the world.
Now, with the Pope on his way back to Europe after a final stopover in Iqaluit Friday, what’s next?
Matteo points to the TRC's calls to action, which urge the Catholic Church and other religious institutions to educate leaders and parishes on the church’s role in colonization and residential schools, engage with Indigenous nations to foster greater respect for Indigenous spirituality and establish permanent funding for community-controlled healing and reconciliation projects.
“I spoke to an Ojibway priest in Ottawa, Father Darolyd Winkler, and I’ll have to echo his words here: we’re still at the foothills here, and we have a whole Everest to climb,” Matteo says.
“And remember, this is not just an Indigenous problem to solve. The whole papal visit was titled Walking Together. Canadians are directly implicated, and not just Parliament Hill or the Vatican, but regular communities, small parishes and individuals.”
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