Photo By: Nacho Arteaga from Unsplash

Last week in Rome, Pope Francis apologized to a group of 200 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis delegates regarding the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the Canadian residential school system. 

In his message, the Pope asked for God’s forgiveness on behalf of those church members involved and apologized to the group of delegates in attendance.

“(I feel) sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, and the abuses you suffered, and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” said Pope Francis in his official address, originally delivered in Italian.

While many Indigenous representatives in attendance were pleased with the Pope’s remarks, some have expressed concern over the fact that his apology only mentioned those members of the church who participated in the system, and not the role of the institution as a whole.

“I’m sickened by the Pope’s lack of ability to admit the Catholic Church’s role in Canadian Indian residential schools. All he admitted and apologized for was for the harm ‘some Catholics’ did to the children,” said Roxanne Rees, founder of Saint Michael Catholic High School Indigenous Education. “How can a religion that preaches about forgiveness be so hypocritical?” 

Given the church’s deep-rooted avoidance of this issue for many decades, many people found the Pope’s comments to be underwhelming, and lacking substance. Others however, interpreted the comments as a key first step on the path to reconciliation.

“At this stage, an apology is what we were looking for, and in my view — and in the opinion of many, many others that were present there — this was the apology,” said Phil Fontaine, former national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in an appearance on CBC Radio’s As It Happens. “One can’t impose this apology on any individual. This will be up to each individual and each individual survivor to determine whether the words spoken today are good enough for them.” 

The official address did not mention reparations, but it is expected that the Pope will expand on this sentiment during his trip to Canada, currently scheduled for summer of 2022. 

Also during his appearance on As It Happens, Fontaine stressed the importance of a systematic and coordinated approach to reconciliation, proposing methods such as displaying artifacts in the Vatican Museum, providing access to school records, or financial reparations from the Catholic Church. He also stressed the importance of Indigenous representation during these talks to ensure a fair resolution.

Anyone affected by this reporting is encouraged to reach out to the national Indian Residential School Crisis Line for access to emotional and crisis referral services. The line is open 24/7 and can be reached by telephone at 1-866-925-4419.