While recognizing the papal apology’s importance to survivors, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says Pope Francis’ offering of sorrow and shame leaves a “deep hole” by blaming individual members of the Catholic Church for the abuses of residential schools, not the institution itself.
“It is important to underscore that the Church was not just an agent of the state, nor simply a participant in government policy, but was a lead co-author of the darkest chapters in the history of this land,” said Murray Sinclair in a statement on Tuesday.
“Driven by the Doctrine of Discovery and other Church beliefs and doctrines, Catholic leaders not only enabled the Government of Canada, but pushed it even further in its work to commit cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples.”
Sinclair, a former judge and retired senator, led the TRC as it crossed the country gathering testimony from survivors, eventually producing thousands of pages of reports on Canada’s residential school system in 2015.
The Catholic Church operated some 60 per cent of the institutions, which were funded and regulated by the federal government in Ottawa. The rest were operated by various Protestant denominations.
On Monday in Maskwacis, on Treaty 6 territory in Alberta, Francis apologized for the ways many church members “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.”
Cheers and applause rang out a second earlier when the pontiff uttered words many survivors waited a lifetime to hear: “I am sorry.”
But, according to Sinclair, history offers clear examples where “it was not just a collaboration, but an instigation” in which the church urged the federal government to be bolder and more aggressive in its efforts to destroy Indigenous cultures.
“It was more than the work of a few bad actors — this was a concerted institutional effort to remove children from their families and cultures, all in the name of Christian supremacy,” Sinclair said.
The TRC’s Call to Action 58 urged the Pope to come to Canada and deliver an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the “the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse” of Indigenous children in the institutions.
Francis did not apologize for the church’s institutional role in the system, but rather framed the abuse, as he did in his first apology in Rome, as the work of “a few bad actors” – individual Catholics who lapsed in their faith.
It’s unclear if Sinclair considers Call to Action 58 completed. He did not immediately respond to an interview request.
Sinclair also noted in his statement how the Vatican has not heeded the TRC’s call for all religious denominations to repudiate colonizing ideologies used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery.
The doctrine, emanating from a series of papal bulls from the 15th century, held that European explorers could acquire territories for their monarchs merely by “discovering” them, even if they were already inhabited and governed by others, as long as those inhabitants were non-Christians.
In practice, this doctrine and similar ones were used to justify the invasion, seizure and conquest of Indigenous territories particularly in the Americas of today, including in some places through warfare and slaughter.
Indigenous advocates for years have urged states to formally repudiate and rescind the doctrine.
“While an apology has been made, that same doctrine is in place,” added Sinclair’s statement. “The Pope and the Church remain silent on the most problematic tenets of its belief system: that Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world should not have the right to practice their own faith, cultures, and traditions.”
While Sinclair pointed to shortfalls in the apology, his fellow TRC commissioner Willie Littlechild gifted Francis with a headdress once the Pope concluded his remarks.
Littlechild is a survivor of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, whose former grounds Francis visited earlier in the day.
An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend Canada’s countrywide system of assimilationist residential schools which officially operated for more than a century.
The TRC documented widespread instances of neglect, abuse, malnutrition, chronic underfunding, disease and death at the institutions.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has identified more than 4,000 victims who died at the schools.
The Pope’s journey, dubbed a penitential pilgrimage by Vatican, continues this week as Francis prepares to head to Quebec City on Wednesday from where he will fly to Iqaluit on Friday.