TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson at a March 30 news conference in Ottawa with representatives of a range of Protestant religions responding to Call to Action #48 asking faith communities to bring their policies in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. CCN photo/Deborah Gyapong

Papal apology still top of mind in TRC Calls to Action

  • March 31, 2016

OTTAWA - While many within the Catholic Church and other denominations have apologized for their role in Indian residential schools, many are still awaiting the one voice that would speak loudest — Pope Francis.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions called for the Pope to apologize for the Indian residential schools on Canadian soil within a year of the June 2015 publication of the TRC’s Calls to Action. It is one of two of the 94 calls that had a time limit, TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson said March 30 at an Ottawa news conference.

“We heard many survivors say ‘My Church has not apologized to me,’ ” she said. Asked if an apology from Pope Francis would be enough, she responded, “I’m certain it won’t be enough. It’s all just movement forward.”

“No one thing will be perfect for everyone,” she said. “But we have to keep trying.”

Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the apostolic nuncio to Canada, said a request to Pope Francis for an apology in Canada for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential schools has gone to the Vatican.

“The Pope has received this invitation, this request, from the First Nations,” Bonazzi said. “He is considering it.”

There has been a papal apology to Canada’s First Nations in the past. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI made a formal apology when he met personally with a delegation of native leaders under Phil Fontaine, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The meeting, arranged by Archbishop James Weisgerber, former president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, was to let Benedict apologize for Church complicity in residential schools. The TRC has never acknowledged Benedict’s apology, though.

Wilson did acknowledge many bishops and Catholic organizations have apologized over the years, and the structure of the Catholic Church as a group of dioceses and entities rather than one national Church has not permitted one Canadian response. Many of the 7,000 witnesses the TRC heard wanted a “corporate response,” she said.

“We, all of us, have inherited this,” she said of Canadian Church history. People are “still struggling over” it.

Wilson responded to an ecumenical statement made by an array of Protestant denominations, from the Anglican Church, the United Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Lutheran Church to the Salvation Army and the Quakers, on Call to Action #48 asking all faith communities’ to bring their policies in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by March 31.

Organized by KAIROS, no Catholic leaders were present. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian Religious Conference and other Catholic organizations had published their response to #48 the previous day. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada also released its response separately.

The TRC report spoke of cultural genocide against Canada’s indigenous peoples and Wilson said she had not been prepared to hear how often witnesses spoke of “spiritual abuse” at the schools.

Wilson stressed the Calls to Action were not issued “to make people comfortable” or to represent a “kinder, gentler assimilation.” The Calls to Action are “not optional,” she said. The TRC deliberately made them “sound imperative.”

Wilson called the response of the faith communities “bold” and “courageous.”

“We, too, have been part of colonialization,” she said, and through that have supported “spiritual displacement.”

Wilson stressed however, not all survivors’ experiences of the Church were the same. Some said, “I hate the Church; I’ll never set foot in the church again,” she said. Others said they felt “hurt” and injured when people spoke ill of the Church. Some said the Church had been “key to my healing.”

Others said, “It wasn’t the Church who did these things to us; it was individuals who hid behind the Church who did these things to us.”

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