Delegates representing Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit are pictured in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall during a meeting with Pope Francis April 1. The Pope will meet members of Canada’s Indigenous communities in late July, visiting Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit in Nunavut, the country’s most northern region. CNS photo/Vatican Media

First Nations group offers draft for papal apology

By 
  • June 24, 2022

A First Nations group of residential school survivors has publicly put forward specific wording for a papal apology widely expected in Canada in July.  

The Doctrine of Discovery, an apology on behalf of the whole Church and not just members of the Church, reparations, restitution and repatriation are all on the agenda, said the National Indian Residential School Circle of Survivors. 

“I commit the Catholic Church to support the co-development of processes with First Nations, Metís and Inuit peoples for the renunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery, reparations, restitution, repatriation and real conciliation and the reconciliation of their respective rights,” reads part of the draft apology released by the group to media on June 15. 

Residential school survivor and lawyer Ken Young told The Catholic Register the public release of the draft apology was in no way designed to embarrass Canada’s bishops. Young framed the draft as advice to a foreign dignitary preparing to speak in Canada. It would be unacceptable for any world leader to come to Canada and not take advice on delicate matters, he said. 

“We’re not trying to embarrass anybody,” Young said. “We’re not telling the Pope what to say. The Pope will say what he wants to say.” 

The goal is to find the right words to consolidate and propel the process of reconciliation forward, he stressed. 

The National Indian Residential School Circle of Survivors draft apology names the government of Canada as primarily responsible for “the policy of assimilation” but holds the Church responsible for its “implementation” and an assumption that European culture and institutions are necessarily better, more civilized and the inevitable fruit of progress. 

“This Eurocentric view can be traced to the papal bulls of 1455 (Romanus Pontifex) and 1493 (Inter Caetera),” reads the draft. The draft makes no mention of the unpromulgated 1537 bull Sublimus Dei which called European leaders to recognize that Indigenous people are “truly men” with inherent rights, or the 1538 papal brief Pastoral Officium, which excommunicated anyone who enslaved Indigneous people of the Americas or stole their land. 

Canada’s Catholic bishops have consulted widely with various groups about the elements that could be covered in a papal apology, said spokesperson Neil MacCarthy. 

“The bishops have worked collaboratively with Indigenous partners to provide background, context and themes for the Vatican’s consideration for both the (April 1) Rome address as well as for the Holy Father’s upcoming visit to Canada,” MacCarthy wrote in an email.

“The Pope, reflecting and deeply moved by his interaction with survivors as well as the insights provided, will ultimately determine the specific words that he will share during his time in Canada.” 

MacCarthy echoed Young that the Pope’s wording of the apology will be his own. 

“The final decision about what he wishes to communicate belongs entirely to the Pope himself,” he said. 

The Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, which brings together Indigenous elders and Catholic bishops, expressed confidence that Pope Francis will find the right words when he comes to Canada. 

In a prayer service outline that the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle released to help Catholic parishes and schools prepare for the papal visit, it suggests that “We pray that the visit of Pope Francis to the Indigenous people will bear fruit in truth-telling, healing, justice and reconciliation.” 

Mi’kmaq residential school survivor Phyllis Googoo supports the National Indian Residential School Circle of Survivors draft apology, but she doesn’t want to see the apology become a source of conflict. 

“I’m hoping it will be peaceful, that’s one thing,” said Googoo, who is a member of the First Nations survivors’ circle. “Because we lose the whole thing if it’s not peaceful. I don’t want a demonstration. I wouldn’t like that. But I know a lot of people are pretty angry out West. I feel that way, too, because of the children that are missing. That’s too many children.” 

Demonstrations during the visit would not help, said Googoo. 

The organizers are confident “this visit will be a significant milestone on the healing and reconciliation journey, marked by constructive interactions with Indigenous people and a shared commitment to ‘walking together,’ ” said MacCarthy. 

Young, who attended Anglican-run residential schools in Prince Albert and Dauphin, Sask., insisted there was no need for the First Nations group to consult with Metís or Inuit before releasing the suggested apology.  

“We didn’t feel we needed to consult with the Metís or the Inuit,” Young told The Catholic Register. “They can negotiate on their own. That was our position… We chose to use the words First Nation, Metís and Inuit in the draft apology because we do not like the word Indigenous. The word Indigenous appears to mean that everybody is the same and that the issue is all the same. It isn’t all the same. This is a First Nations issue. That’s the way to look at it.” 

Young insisted the apology is meant to move reconciliation in the right direction. 

“We need to turn this thing around. We don’t want to make enemies out of the Church. We want them to walk with us,” he said. “Reconciliation is a two-way street. Reconciliation doesn’t mean anything if someone walks away and says, ‘Well, we’re sorry for a few people who did wrong.’ That’s not right.” 

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