Residential school students at confirmation class at St. John’s Indian Residential School in Wabasca, Alta. HANDOUT/Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Indigenous people ‘anxious’ for papal apology

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • December 7, 2017

EDMONTON – Reconciliation with Church a struggle, says former AFN chief Fontaine.

After decades of turbulent history with the Catholic Church, Indigenous peoples are now committed to healing the fractured relationship, says the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

And a significant part of the reconciliation process will be a full, public apology from the Pope — on Canadian soil — for the Church’s role in operating residential schools for the Canadian government.

“I think a lot of people are anxious to experience that,” said Phil Fontaine, adding he is “confident” that under the leadership of Pope Francis it will happen.

“We’ve both had a big struggle in the last number of years trying to figure out how we’re going to move forward together, how to re-establish the traditional relationship between Catholic entities and Indigenous groups in every part of the country.” 

Fontaine was the guest speaker Nov. 30 at the Star of the North, an Oblate retreat centre in St. Albert, Alta. A three-term national chief, Fontaine helped establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which detailed the history of residential schools and a path toward reconciliation through 94 recommendations. A papal apology on Canadian soil was one of those recommendations.

Over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in residential schools. Many were forbidden to speak their language or practise their own culture. An estimated 80,000 former students are living today, and the impact of the trauma and abuse continues to be felt.

“That just doesn’t disappear,” said Fontaine, who attended an Oblate residential school on the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. “To think that, at this point and time in our history, that those will just vanish into thin air is very much wishful thinking.”

The TRC reports there were 139 government-run residential schools across Canada. About 60 per cent of them were run by Catholic religious orders or other entities, starting in the late 1800s. The last residential school closed in 1996.

Each diocese and religious community is autonomous and Canada’s Catholic bishops, as well as leaders of religious communities, have issued apologies.

Canadian bishops say they are focused on their ongoing response to the TRC, but a future papal visit was not a major topic at their annual plenary Sept. 25-29. 

Fontaine met privately with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in 2009, when he received a “wonderful and reaffirming” apology for the Church’s role in residential schools. He also suggested that acts of contrition might go both ways.

“We’ve been pretty harsh too. We’ve been very angry. We’ve been bitter. We’ve come out swinging quite often. That doesn’t speak well about forgiveness.”

Fontaine stressed that First Nations want to return to a “very positive” relationship with the Catholic Church, which historically helped protect and advance Indigenous rights.

“The Catholic Church was every bit a victim as we were,” Fontaine said. “The challenge is how to build up communities, how to take whatever steps necessary to ensure that communities flourish.” 

Fontaine cautions against expecting anything “dramatic.”

“The transformation we’re looking for is not going to happen overnight,” he said. “It will be a long, difficult process because the fractured relationship came about through decades and decades. 

“I’ve seen not just apologies. I’ve seen forgiveness. I’ve seen people that have been really hurt reach out to the other side. Once you forgive, I think it’s possible to take the necessary steps toward reconciliation.”

(Grandin Media)

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