Chief Bellegarde wants an opportunity to impress upon the Pope how an apology could help foster healing and reconciliation. Photo courtesy of the United Church of Canada/Creative commons

First Nations not giving up on Pope Francis apology

  • April 3, 2018

OTTAWA –  Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde wants a face-to-face meeting to ask Pope Francis to reconsider his rejection of a call to come to Canada to issue a formal apology to Indigenous peoples.

“He’s a world leader,” Bellegarde said. “People watch and listen and he has much impact. He’s a very holy man.”

Bellegarde’s comments came in response to a March 27 letter from Canada’s bishops which said the Pope will not be coming to Canada to apologize in person for the involvement of the Catholic Church in residential schools.   A personal apology on Canadian soil was one of 94 calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its 2015 report.

Bellegarde wants an opportunity to impress upon the Pope how an apology could help foster healing and reconciliation. He always wants the Pope to renounce the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery that justified colonization of Indigenous lands by declaring the New World non-Christian and therefore terra nullius (empty). 

“He’s a very special man, and for him to show that strong leadership on those two requests, I think would be a strong act of healing and strong act of reconciliation going forward,” Bellegarde said.

Though disappointed to learn the Pope was not coming,  Bellegarde noted that the news came from the Catholic bishops of Canada and “not directly from the Pope.”

“I will continue to urge Pope Francis to come to our homelands as per TRC Call to Action #58 to meet with the peoples, with survivors and their children of the residential school system, because that in itself would be an act of healing,” he said.

The Pope’s decision came in a letter to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada from Bishop Lionel Gendron, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. It stressed the bishops’ commitment to reconciliation and the Pope’s encouragement of their resolve to keep reaching out in “intensive pastoral work.”

Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg said the Pope has been involved in “considerable dialogue over the last number of months,” concerning the TRC recommendations.

“He knows about the TRC, he knows the findings,” said Gagnon, who spoke on behalf of the CCCB. “He has a great interest in this and he takes it very seriously, but he doesn’t feel he could personally respond to this particular call to action #58.”

He noted the Pope has not ruled out a future visit.

“He has said he is open to coming to Canada and top on his priorities would be a meeting with Indigenous people,” Gagnon said, adding that this was a main priority when Pope John Paul II’s visited Canada.

Bellegarde noted that the Pope apologized in Bolivia to Indigenous people and in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI apologized to the Irish people for sexual abuse by priests.  At a 2009 Vatican meeting, Pope Benedict XVI apologized in person to a delegation of  Canadian First Nations leaders led by former AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine. Bellegarde hopes Pope Francis will come to Canada to build on that apology.

“I think in some ways the Indigenous peoples have to develop a more assertive approach to connecting with the Vatican,” said Harry Lafond, of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and a member of the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council. “I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere without direct dialogue between the Pope and Indigenous people. Whether it’s this year, next year or the year after, I think it has to happen.”

Deacon Rennie Nahanee, a Squamish elder who works in the Vancouver archdiocese’s Office of Ministries and Outreach, believes “the door is still open.” 

He said a papal apology here “would have moved more Canadians to understand about our colonial history here in Canada.”

Gendron disputed suggestions that Canadian bishops are divided on whether the Pope should heed the TRC call to come to Canada. Last year Gendron raised concern about possible law suits as a result of a papal apology and other bishops worried about the cost of a visit.

“I wouldn’t say the bishops are divided,” Gagnon said. “The bishops have agreed there needs to be reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. It’s a matter of trying to look at the whole picture. Even First Nations people have different views of the Holy Father’s visit to Canada.”

He called a papal trip “complex” and said “the cost issue may be of some concern for some but that was not a focus of conversation, not in my experience anyway.” 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was disappointed by the decision. He was given advance notice March 26 at a private meeting in Ottawa with Gendron and Cardinal Gerald Cyprien Lacroix of Quebec.

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