The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is urging the Catholic Church to tackle residential school denialism following Pope Francis’s apology on Friday morning.
Church leaders who refuse to accept survivors’ truths are, right now, “the biggest source of resistance to reconciliation,” says Murray Sinclair.
“Denialism was allowed to flourish because of the silence that was coming from the Pope,” said the retired senator in an interview. “With this statement, those denying within the church — or denying in public because of the church being able to support denialism — will no longer have that ladder upon which they can stand.”
On the final day of an Indigenous delegation’s Vatican visit, the pontiff uttered a long-awaited and much-anticipated sorry “for the role that a number of Catholics” had in abusing children forced to attend Canada’s residential schools.
“All these things are contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Francis said. “For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry.”
I feel shame for the role that a number of Catholics with educational responsibilities have had in the abuse and lack of respect for the identity, culture and spiritual values of the Indigenous Peoples in Canada. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 1, 2022
The role these Catholics had in wounding Indigenous children and stripping them of their identity, culture and spirituality filled him with feelings of shame, sorrow and indignation, the pontiff added.
His apology comes nearly seven years after the TRC delivered its final report. In it, Call to Action 58 urged the pope to apologize for the “Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children.”
Francis didn’t outright apologize for the church’s institutional role in perpetrating the abuse but rather the bad behaviour of individual Catholics that, he suggested, had turned their backs on their faith.
Sinclair told APTN the contrition “is a major step” but said Francis still must come to Canada and face survivors to fulfill Call to Action 58. Sinclair also said the reference to policies of cultural assimilation was a notable insinuation of institutional guilt.
“That’s important,” Sinclair said. “That should be taken together with the apology for the individuals who committed wrongs. The one thing that arguably was missing was an acknowledgement that they put those people in place, in those positions of power where they could get away with that.”
Nevertheless, Sinclair said in a press release it was an important moment and long past time the church took responsibility for “a dark chapter of Canada’s colonialist history, one which the Church was a key co-author.”
The former judge took control of the TRC in 2009 as it began crisscrossing the country seeking out survivors and documenting the horrors of residential schools. He was appointed to the Senate in 2016 and retired in 2021.
The TRC uncovered widespread evidence of systemic abuse, neglect, malnutrition, disease and death. It documented how the Canadian government wilfully and chronically underfunded the institutions while ignoring or covering up reports blowing the whistle on Canada’s “national crime.”
The system operated for more than 160 years with an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children forced through it. The Catholic Church operated about two-thirds of the individual institutions.
The system was a central element of the Canadian state’s genocidal policy of Indigenous cultural eradication and assimilation, the TRC said.
“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources,” explained the report.
The TRC also probed deaths at the schools. While it documented thousands, the commission concluded the true number of fatalities may never be known due to the destruction of records and bad reporting practices.
Almost a year ago, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced more than 200 probable unmarked graves had been located in an apple orchard at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., sparking intense global scrutiny and renewed calls for justice.
Given this context, and considering the Vatican’s previous refusals to apologize, some observers say the apology may ring hollow and will be an “empty gesture” unless accompanied by reparations and radical change.
But those in Rome, like Sinclair’s fellow TRC commissioner Willie Littlechild, whose birthday it also happened to be, danced in the street.
“It was very, very emotional at a number of levels. First of all, six years going across the country listening to survivors, many of them called for that,” Littlechild told APTN’s Tina House in Rome. “It took me a very long time to try and heal myself from the trauma of residential school. I was in residential school for 14 years.”
'It was very, very emotional on a number of levels,' says school survivor and commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Wilton Littlechild. https://t.co/Fyq0OKi3Jm
— APTN News (@APTNNews) April 1, 2022
Sinclair’s statement wished Littlechild a happy birthday, noting Littlechild’s road to Rome has been a long one: “I wish we could go back in time to tell that six-year-old who attended a residential school in Alberta, that one day he would be in the room, hearing an apology directly from the Pope, for all he has been through.”
Sinclair also urged those members of the Indigenous community who are dissatisfied with the apology to, before berating it, consider the survivors who may need it to heal.
“There will be people who will deny the validity of the apology, who will minimize the apology, who will say that the apology is not sincere, is not enough,” Sinclair told APTN. “But I think they need to understand that in doing that they are undermining the survivors.
“They are hurting the survivors even more because the survivors who needed to hear those words — who are taking faith from those words, who are getting some spiritual healing from those words — are being negatively affected.”