It was a summer of discontent following the discovery of unmarked graves near former residential schools. There is hope now that the Canadian bishops have apologized for their role in the schools that Pope Francis may come to Canada to apologize on the Church’s behalf. Photo by Michael Swan

CCCB remorse sets stage for papal apology

By 
  • September 29, 2021

Graydon Nicholas accepts the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ apology for more than a century of wrongs by Canadian Catholics in residential schools and hopes it will lead to a papal apology on Canadian soil.

“It was a bit of a long time coming, but I’m glad it has finally come out,” said Nicholas, Canada’s first Indigenous lieutenant governor, from New Brunswick. 

Nicholas believes Canada’s bishops are now on a path that will lead to Pope Francis fulfilling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #58, which asks for a papal apology on Canadian soil. The first step along that path will be the delegation of Indigenous representatives going to Rome to meet Pope Francis in December.

“I think that’s important,” Nicholas said. “To have the voices of our people there. Hopefully it does in fact convince our Holy Father to say ‘Yeah, OK. I will come.’ The thing is that the Pope has to hear first hand from those whose families were victimized by what has happened.”

Nicholas also praises the bishops for announcing a nationally co-ordinated suite of regional fundraising efforts aimed at reparations for the harm done at the Catholic-run schools.

“It was evangelization gone terribly wrong,” he said.

Out on the West Coast, Squamish elder Deacon Rennie Nahanee interpreted the apology as an important message to non-Indigenous Catholics.

“It speaks to Canadian Catholics that their shepherd is telling the congregation that they need to be part of the solution, to help their Indigenous brothers and sisters,” he said.

Nahanee also interprets the apology as an end to legal hair splitting over whether or not there is a Catholic Church of Canada.

“The CCCB statement does not separate the bishops from the entities that ran the residential schools, and this is a good thing,” he said.

A new national awareness of the history of colonization and the Church’s role in it is fuel for Nahanee’s pastoral passion.

“This helps me in my role of bringing the Squamish language into the Mass and funerals as my contribution for healing and the Church’s role in reconciliation, in returning our language which was taken away from my people.”

Anishnaabe pipe carrier, drum carrier, eagle staff carrier and eagle whistle carrier Deacon Michael Robinson is personally unmoved by the bishops’ statement, but hopeful for what comes next.

“The apology feels sterile and insincere,” Robinson wrote in an e-mail from Thunder Bay. “However, as it spreads in the media platforms, I see people appreciate this document.”

Robinson sees the national CCCB apology as striding toward a papal apology on Canadian soil.

“This is a very necessary step. There has to be some common ground for healing to start,” he said. “The Pope as a leader needs to take the lead and be the servant we know him to be.”

The online campaigners behind Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation (catholics4tr.com) acknowledge the progress the bishops have made from arguing there is no national Church to finally issuing an apology.

“We should have met this obligation years ago. We have failed,” said Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation spokesperson Leah Perrault. “We need every effort — lay and diocesan and national and otherwise — to be made to call us forward. We are late in our response and late is better than later or never, but it should not have taken graves or external pressure to do the right thing.”

“It’s a great start,” said fellow Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation organizer Erin Kinsella. “Even though it took a long time, this is precedent setting in terms of the CCCB. I want to be encouraging the movement forward.”

For retired North Bay, Ont., judge George Valin, the CCCB statement is not the end of his four-year quest to have the bishops do their part in fulfilling Call to Action #58. Valin recognizes that the CCCB apology represents progress, but he has reservations.

“If they wanted to show their good faith in this whole process, they could have passed a motion, a resolution, inviting the Pope to visit Canada.”

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