Archbishop Murray Chatlain, above, co-chair of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, a coalition of Catholic groups. The Circle has been invited by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett to aid the federal government in obtaining a papal apology for the Church role in residential schools. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Government seeks help from Catholic coalition to push papal apology

  • May 30, 2018

OTTAWA – The Minister of Indigenous Affairs has asked the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, a coalition of Catholic groups, to help government efforts to obtain a papal apology for the Church’s role in residential schools.

“As an essential component of healing and reconciliation, the survivors of Canada’s Indian residential schools and their families deserve an apology from the Pope on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church,” said Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett in a May letter co-signed by Senator Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and NDP MP Charlie Angus, who recently co-sponsored a motion to invite a papal apology that passed with all-party support in the House of Commons on May 1.

“As you may be aware, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been very clear about the Government of Canada’s commitment to reconciliation, including the implementation of all 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” the letter said. Call to Action #58 asks for the Pope to apologize on Canadian soil for “the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.

“We would like to invite representatives of the Guadalupe Circle to join us at a discussion table with residential school survivors to discuss with them the role the Circle can play toward obtaining an apology and to advance the cause of reconciliation,” read the letter to Circle co-chair Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas.

“We were surprised to get a letter from the minister,” said Chatlain. “We had asked for a meeting a couple of years before and she wasn’t able to make it.

“One of the positives is that they’re at least aware of the Circle and are interested in meeting with us, which we also have an interest in doing.... We’re preparing a response (to the Minister’s letter), but that’s going to take a little time,” Chatlain said. 

The Circle is a coalition of seven Catholic groups, including the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Women’s League, Development and Peace, the Canadian Religious Conference, the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council and Indigenous peoples. It was formed by and includes the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).  It held its first official meeting Dec. 5, 2016.

The mission of the Circle is to renew and foster “relationships between the Catholic Church and Indigenous people in Canada” and one of its purposes is to “assist Catholics in engagement with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its Calls to Action,” according to the CCCB website.

Asked whether he had any concerns about government pressure on the Circle, Chatlain said, “I think all of us are conscious of trying to make this not just about politics. … We’re in this for the long term and about having long term-healthier relationships for reconciliation and the betterment of Canadian society as a whole.

“We want to step way back from what’s been happening,” he said, referring to the present political context.  “Overall, there has been a lot of progress on Aboriginal issues, and on the understanding of Aboriginal culture and languages. We want to keep that.”

As for a papal apology, the archbishop said he expects it will happen “when the time is right.”

“We don’t just act individually for our own interests. You have to have a lot of discussions, it’s going to take time for events, for the right time and the right place.

“Once you start to plan details around a gathering or an event like (a papal visit), you start to realize how many issues are at play and it’s going to take a lot of work to do it well, a lot of work for it to be a real positive and meaningful step.” 

Chatlain added that the bishops are “wrestling with Call to Action #58, taking it seriously and want the response to be as healthy a response as possible.” 

Bennett had sent CCCB president Bishop Lionel Gendron a letter April  26 requesting a personal meeting to set up a meeting among the bishops and residential school survivors.

According to the CBC, Bennett wrote: “I would be happy to facilitate a meeting ... to personally hear what an apology would mean to them and how it is crucial to reconciliation in Canada.” 

The CCCB, however, would not comment on whether Gendron had replied to Bennett’s letter.

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