Governor-General Mary Simon, the first deputy royal representative of Inuk’s, was present. So were Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, along with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations from every corner of the country.
As the Pope wrapped up his visit to Canada on Friday, many who came to rest said he had failed to offer a concrete way forward. Aside from a vague pledge to conduct a “serious investigation into the facts of what happened,” many observers were left wondering what would happen next. What concrete actions will the Pope take to improve the lives of survivors?
At stake is the ability of tens of thousands of survivors to heal after suffering decades of violence and abuse, which has caused well-documented intergenerational trauma to their descendants.
They had heard the words of atonement before.
In 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the federal government’s role in forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their homes and placing them in residential institutions aimed at eradicating their traditional languages, culture, and traditions. A new era of truth and reconciliation has begun.
There were moments of hope.
Phil Fontaine, the national president of the Assembly of First Nations at the time and a boarding school survivor, accepted Harper’s apology on the grounds of the House of Commons – and set his sights on the future.
We must not falter in our duty now. Encouraged by this historical scene, it is possible to end the ethnic nightmare together. “Boarding school memories sometimes cut like merciless knives into our souls. This day will help us put this pain behind us.”
There was no denying the history of the moment. This apology was launched by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which heard thousands of survivors from boarding schools and released a landmark 2015 report containing 94 calls to action to promote reconciliation.
Harper first introduced this concept to many Canadians in 2008.
He said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “would be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, one based on knowledge of our shared history, respect for one another, and a desire to move forward with a strong renewed understanding. Strong families, communities, and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to strengthening Canada.” for all of us “.
Fourteen years later, reconciliation is still largely a work in progress.
Pope Francis’ apology for the Catholic Church’s role in running boarding schools acknowledged the “unfortunate evil” perpetrated by members of the Church, whose policies have had “disastrous” effects on children and their families.
But he only apologized for the actions of some individuals, not the institution as a whole.
Francis also did not touch upon the subject of reparations. Nor did he commit to disclosing records that would help determine the final resting places of many Aboriginal children. He didn’t say a word about repealing a 15th-century papal bull denying supremacy to non-Christians – the “doctrine of discovery” – which historians say underpins centuries of indigenous dehumanization.
The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a retired judge and senator named Murray Sinclair, acknowledged the positive impact Francis’s apology had on the many survivors who were listening. But he said the expression of remorse left a “deep gap” regarding the church’s full role in the school system.
Sinclair offered another way forward.
“There is a better path that the Church – and all Canadians – can already follow: take responsibility for past actions and resolve to do better on this journey of reconciliation,” he wrote in a statement. “We must commit ourselves to talking to each other and to each other with respect.”
Canada’s relationship with reconciliation has followed a predictable path since Harper’s apology. Pollsters rarely find it near the top of the electoral priority list for average Canadians, but a sudden surge in interest reliably produces promises from politicians to recommit to a better job.
The summer of 2021 marked the beginning of another new chapter. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia made global headlines after announcing the discovery of more than 200 unmarked potential graves near the site of a residential school. Two weeks later, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan revealed hundreds more.
None of these discoveries came as a surprise to people whose oral history spoke of unmarked graves. Indeed, the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission referred to it. But it came as horrific news for many Canadians who are ignorant of history.
Trudeau came to power in 2015 promising to implement dozens of calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — a historic commitment to doing everything the government can to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples.
After the Cowessess, Trudeau again apologized for the government’s role in schools – and again pledged to do better.
“We will continue to put indigenous peoples and their desires at the center of everything we do,” he said. “We are there to be a partner in whatever is needed to find the full truth and to ensure that reconciliation is possible.”
On his first-ever National Day of Truth and Reconciliation last September, a day of sombre reflection for many, Trudeau headed to the West Coast for a short vacation — flying near the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia. Error in judgment.
“Instead of talking about truth and reconciliation,” he said, “people talked about me, and that’s on me.” “I take responsibility for that.”
The prime minister visited the community a few weeks later in October. Ashley Michelle, a Secwe̓pemc mom, took the microphone during a televised event and fought back tears as she addressed Trudeau directly. She demanded better days ahead.
“Our kids don’t need to feel that pain,” she said, “and it stops with my generation.” “I want our children to have a future where their voice is heard. Where they do not have to worry about being another statistic. Where our people are safe. Our children have access to clean drinking water. Where they do not have to defend their traditional sacred land.”
In April, a delegation of survivors visited the Pope in Rome. Fontaine was in that room too, hoping for a long-awaited apology. To his surprise, Francis threw one during a private audience at the end of the trip – and committed to repeating it on First Nations lands.
After his visit to Maskwacis, the Pope led a huge mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium and visited a pilgrimage site outside the city. He then traveled to Quebec City to meet Trudeau, as well as representatives of the local Aboriginal people.
During the evening service in Quebec, the Pope acknowledged the “evil that certain sons and daughters of (the Church) commit” on “minors and the weak” in the form of sexual abuse.
Francis’ last stop before returning to Rome was in Nunavut, where he will meet Friday afternoon survivors of the Inuit Residential School.
Both apologies fell short of the eyes of Sinclair and other prominent Aboriginal advocates. Not to mention Trudeau, who has pushed the church for “concrete action.”
“We don’t have to accept his hollow apology — even if it’s meaningful and necessary to some,” Pam Palmeter, Micmaw’s attorney and head of the Department of Indigenous Affairs at Toronto Metropolitan University, wrote in the Toronto Star. “It is better to show apologies through concrete actions that must come before any request for forgiveness.”
said Cynthia Wesley-Eskimo, chair of the Department of Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. The papal apology at least changes the stories that indigenous peoples can pass on to future generations.
“People will now have a story to tell their children and grandchildren about the Pope’s visit and his acknowledgment that this damage has been done,” she told Politico. “It will also help make clear to Canadians in general that this is the truth of the reconciliation story.”
Wesley Esquimo said the apology itself would not chart a way forward. Seven years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report reached the offices of policymakers and the front pages of Canadian newspapers, she said it was difficult to know how to finish the job.
“I work on reconciliation every day. I just call it the paradox of reconciliation. We say all of these things, but what do we do? What is the end goal? How will we know when we are going to get there?”
Trudeau’s legacy with Aboriginal people hinges on his government’s ability to respond appropriately to these questions.
For Treaty 6’s greatest leader, Georges Arcand Jr., the man whose land the Pope expressed remorse, this moment at least marked another fresh start.
“I see Pope Francis’ apology today only as a first step in the Church adapting to our people,” he said. “After meeting with () the Pope and hearing his words, I believe there is a way forward together. There is a lot of work to be done.”