Protesters gather outside the Ontario Legislature following the discovery of unmarked graves across the nation this past summer. Pope Francis is expected to soon come to Canada to apologize for past wrongs done by the Church and its entities at residential schools. Photo by Michael Swan

Indigenous expect positive visit from Pope Francis but apology must be the reason

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  • November 3, 2021

Deacon Harry Lafond is well aware of the serious, sorrowful situation which has prompted Pope Francis to announce a visit to Canada. But he does not believe the papal visit should drown in tears.

“It doesn’t really preclude celebration,” said Lafond, Indigenous education scholar at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan and former chief of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. “You can talk about serious things. You can talk about it in a way that is positive. In fact, you’re not going to get anywhere if you come at this in an aggressive, accusatory type of format. This doesn’t produce conversation. It just produces defensive behaviour.”

Pope Francis is expected to make a papal visit to Canada in the near future to meet with Indigenous people and apologize for the Church’s role in residential schools. The Pope on Oct. 27 accepted an invitation by Canada’s bishops to visit Canada “on a pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation.”

When Pope Francis arrives on Indigenous land, Lafond anticipates dancing.

“There should be celebration. There should be dancing. We need to do this. It’s got to be balanced,” he said. “We have to build in the celebration and the joyfulness of finally being able to meet, to discuss the future, our future together.”

A record number of Canadians are signing up for courses in reconciliation studies at First Nations University in Regina, associate dean of community research and graduate programs Bettina Schneider said.

“Many are learning and opening up to the history of what really happened,” said Schneider. “What’s been happening in recent months with these discoveries of remains, it’s really opening people up. There’s a moment here that we have to capture, that we have to acknowledge.”

Schneider, of the atim ká-mihkosit (Red Dog) Urban Reserve, sees a papal visit as good news.

“It’s a good thing that he is willing to meet with people here, to visit Canada, to have a discussion. That’s a good thing, to open up the lines of communication,” she said.

Though an apology has to be offered and not demanded, Schneider sees a papal request for forgiveness as essential.

“It’s critical that an apology come in order for a new relationship to move forward between the Church and Indigenous people,” she said.

Toronto Catholic District School Board knowledge keeper in residence Diane Montreuil is taking a wait-and-see approach. She’s waiting to see what Catholics will do after the Pope goes back home to Rome.

“It’s going to take more than an apology, to be honest with you,” she said.

Montreuil, who is Métis, believes good things could come from the papal visit.

“I don’t want to put the negative — it would be too easy to put the negative on the table,” she said. “But I am hoping that our chiefs, with the bishops and with the Pope, will have that two or three days that they will have for a huge commitment.”

From Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Guadalupe Circle member Rosella Kinoshameg is anticipating “a pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation.”

“To me this means the Pope will bring hope of the beginning of reconciliation, of everyone making a commitment for respectful relationships, to repair damaged trust by an apology,” Kinoshameg said in an e-mail.

She also anticipates strong emotions.

“Of course there will be tears of mourning for these children, but also tears of joy and gratitude for the comfort and healing,” she said. “The visit by Pope Francis will bring closure to that part of our lives and open the long path to hope and healing and reconciliation.”

Reconciliation between the Church and Indigenous Canadians will not be achieved over the course of a handful of days while the Pope is in Canada, said Lafond. It will be up to Canadians and Catholics across the country to look at their history and the reality of Indigenous lives today, then embrace a new understanding, he said.

“Moreso than at any other time in our history, Catholics — there are enough of them with an open spirit that we can build on,” Lafond said.

Lafond warns that success will depend on what happens before Pope Francis arrives.

“Who is going to be in the planning committee here to determine the most advantageous places that the Pope could visit to get a strong sense of the questions that are being asked, and an environment that provides for the kind of dialogue that needs to happen between Indigenous people and Pope Francis?” he asked.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald is clear that Indigenous people are not about to be satisfied with just words.

“The Catholic Church must be accountable and acknowledge its responsibility for implementing and running these institutions of assimilation and genocide,” she said in an e-mail.

Archibald wants to talk to Canada’s bishops about reparations, including the return of land and involvement in long-term healing and support programs for survivors and their families.

“I am also asking the Holy Father to renounce and formally revoke the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery and replace it with a new papal bull that decrees Indigenous peoples and cultures are valuable, worthy and must be treated with dignity and respect,” Archibald said.

The Doctrine of Discovery was first proclaimed in a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI. It was issued in the context of war raging on both sides of the Mediterranean between Catholic kingdoms and the Ottoman Empire, intended to empower the Christian principalities to take lands and subjugate Muslims along the north African coast and in the eastern Mediterranean.

Despite a counter-document (Sublimus Deus) issued by Pope Paul III in 1537, the Doctrine of Discovery passed from the papal bull into the fabric of Western legal codes, even the legal traditions of non-Catholic states such as the British Empire, the United States and the Netherlands. It became the legal framework of colonization and conquest. This doctrine was used primarily to justify seizing Indigenous lands throughout the Americas and subjecting Indigenous peoples to slavery and forced conversions.

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