Rev. Raymond J. de Souza

Somehow a story about hundreds of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School became a story about what Pope Francis should do, not a story about the lives lost or why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau only rushed to provide money for documenting such graves when Kamloops was in the headlines, five years after he first promised to do so.

As this prime minister is wont to do, he attempted a distraction from his disgraceful dereliction of duty by peddling deceits and dismissing the genuine efforts of others, in this case the Catholic Church.

Any and all accusations that the Catholic Church has “refused” to apologize for the operation of residential schools, is ill-informed, incomplete or incorrect. The record is ample and wide-ranging, stretching back to 1991 when the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate issued a four-page apology that was detailed and unsparing. 

What then of the controversy about a papal apology? The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was signed in 2006. Formal apologies were called for. These apologies are not delivered off-the-cuff the day after an adverse headline; they are the fruit of long and deep consultation, which is itself an instrument of reconciliation. 

The federal government consultations took two years, and then Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered an apology in the House of Commons in June 2008.

On the Catholic side, because there is no such thing as the “Catholic Church in Canada,” but hundreds of independent dioceses and religious orders, a process — again, with long and careful consultation — was put in place for a delegation of some 40 Indigenous associations and survivors to be received by Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. This took place in April 2009, 10 months after the federal government’s apology. 

The Holy Father expressed his sorrow and anguish for the “deplorable” conduct of those Catholics who caused immense pain and suffering to those in residential schools. That this was a suitable counterpart to the federal government apology was understood by everyone — Indigenous media, Catholic media, secular media. Indeed, the caption on a Globe and Mail photograph of the event said simply “Pope apologizes for church’s role in residential schools.”

The delegation was led by Phil Fontaine, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who delivered the most eloquent speech on the history of Catholic-Indigenous relations ever given, addressing of both lights and shadows.

“We suffered needlessly and tragically,” he told Pope Benedict. “We can forgive with generosity of spirit and with the hand of friendship, or we can seek sustenance from bitterness and vengeance. We come here today Most Holy Father, with the spirit and lessons of our ancestors and elders in mind. Reconciliation and friendship is what we seek. The time to re-build a better and brighter future together is upon us.”  

Chief Fontaine spoke of forgiveness and reconciliation, of establishing a renewed friendship. It was a moment of genuine and historic reconciliation. No one who participated thought otherwise. Thus from 2009 to 2015, there was little talk about Catholic refusals or recalcitrance to apologize. That changed with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report in 2015. For all of its meritorious aspects, it obscured the truth about reconciliation for many.

The entire 1991-2009 Catholic repentance and reconciliation process appeared to be set aside as inadequate; instead the TRC called for Pope Francis to appear in Canada “within a year” to apologize. 

In 2017, Prime Minister Trudeau asked the Holy Father to do so. At any given time, dozens of countries have issued invitations for papal visits. Few of them get one, especially given the preference of Pope Francis to visit countries where no pope has visited before. 

Thus in 2018 Pope Francis replied that he would not come to Canada “personally.” But on a visit to Bolivia in 2015, before the TRC issued its final report, Pope Francis had already made an apology for Catholic maltreatment of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. 

The question was never whether Pope Francis would build upon what has been done from 1991-2009, culminating with the apology by Pope Benedict. The question was how, given that a papal visit to Canada was not planned. 

In 2018 and 2019, contrary to the flamboyant but fruitless gestures preferred by the prime minister, the Canadian bishops set about another consultation with Indigenous leaders about how to arrange another visit to Rome, to repeat, broaden and deepen what took place in 2009. Fontaine called 2009 “an important milestone on the road out of darkness.” A second visit would be another milestone on the road of reconciliation. 

The preparation complete, the visit was to have taken place last year, long before Kamloops dominated the news. It was delayed due to the pandemic, and will now take place in November 2021. That’s how reconciliation is done, working patiently with all parties, not prime ministerial preening for the cameras.

-Father de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston