Papal apology ‘an empty gesture’ without reparations and reform: Niigaan Sinclair

Sorry is a good first step but four key actions must follow, Sinclair tells N2N.


Residential school survivors showed courage, resilience and dignity this week as they faced the head of the very institution whose clergy abused them as children, says Niigaan Sinclair.

That’s what stood out to the Winnipeg Free Press columnist and Indigenous studies professor as he watched from afar.

“Think about how brave that is,” Sinclair told Nation to Nation. “I’ve been blown away.”

An Indigenous delegation to Rome will wrap up Friday following one last meeting between Pope Francis and emissaries from First Nations, Metis and Inuit at the Vatican.

They’re expected to continue pressing the pontiff to apologize for the Catholic church’s role in running residential schools, ideally on Indigenous territory during an upcoming trip to Canada.

But, while an apology is a fine first step, Sinclair told N2N it must be accompanied by reparations and reform. In a Monday column, he laid out four things that need to happen after the sorry is said.

First, the church should pay the cash it was legally obligated to hand over under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement but didn’t. Then it should return the stolen land on which residential schools were built.

It should release any archival documents, relevant records and stolen Indigenous artifacts in its possession. And finally, there must be a massive probe to get abuse in the church under control.

“It’s something that has to happen in the Catholic church for it to continue to have any merit or standing, or for any apology to have any meaning at all,” said Sinclair. “Without that, it’s basically an empty gesture.”

The Catholic church ran about two-thirds of Canada’s residential schools, a system that operated for more than 160 years. An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the federally funded institutions.

Reports of abuse, neglect, malnutrition, disease and death were rampant in the chronically underfunded places where the chief aim was to assimilate Indigenous people and eradicate Indigenous culture.

Métis and Inuit dignitaries had hour-long audiences earlier this week, while First Nations had their first meeting on Thursday.

If the pilgrimage to the Vatican brings peace and solace to even one survivor, it won’t be a failure, Sinclair said. But he noted a papal apology may ring hollow to some, given what it took to obtain it.

“The Catholic church took so long to do the right thing, it’s almost as though it feels very empty,” he said. “The Catholic church did this not because of Indigenous Peoples, but because Catholics globally were so upset about the unmarked graves that are being found at residential school sites.”

Sinclair added that he believes the church will eventually do the right thing when it comes to making reparations, just perhaps not right away.

“I’m not sure it will be today. Maybe it won’t be tomorrow,” he said. “It will eventually happen, however.”

Similarly, other observers have urged the pontiff to repudiate the old colonial papal bulls like the doctrine of discovery, which was a legal decree Europeans used to justify the colonial seizure and occupation of lands inhabited by non-Christians.

What would it mean for Canada if that happened?

“If you play the game Jenga, it would be like pulling the bottom brick,” said Sinclair. “The house would still stand but it would be teetering.”

Watch his full answer above, followed by an interview with Catherine Coumans, a researcher with MiningWatch Canada.


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Coumans joined two New Democrat members of Parliament this week after they tabled bills that aim to curb human rights abuses by Canadian mining firms operating abroad — often in Indigenous territories.

“It’s considered development,” said Coumans, “but of course, it’s not development for the Indigenous people whose land is being destroyed.”

Online Journalist / Ottawa

Brett is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in Ontario. He grew up in Ottawa where he obtained an English degree from Carleton University. Brett is a creative writer, poet, and journalist. He joined the Ottawa bureau for APTN News in December 2019 as a digital reporter.