Nine months after Pope Francis’ apology to Canada’s Indigenous people on their own land, Catholics gathered to reflect on the historic visit. Michael Swan

Charting the way toward reconciliation

  • April 30, 2023

Close to nine months after Pope Francis’ penitential pilgrimage to apologize to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, Catholics from across the country gathered in-person and online to reflect on the historic visit and to consider the way forward.

Hosted by Julia and Adam Kozak from the Office of the Papal Visit programming team, Reflections on the Papal Visit on April 20 allowed event organizers to share behind-the-scenes memories, contemplations and field the public’s most pressing questions.

The event took place at St. Gregory’s Parish Hall in Toronto.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith was the papal visit’s general coordinator. Smith was present via Zoom and reflected on his involvement and perspectives on the way to continue to walk forward in truth, reconciliation and healing.

Smith, who says he grew up next to a residential school but didn’t really know what it was at the time, says a tremendous amount of education has to happen to accurately inform people about the history and how to live in light of it. While one of the greatest legacies of Pope Francis’ visit was raising awareness, education will need to continue to be a prominent feature in whatever the Church is involved in to move the relationship with Indigenous peoples forward, he says. The key principle is continuing the theme of “Walking Together.”

“As bishops, we want to be discerning together with the Indigenous peoples on what engagement looks like, what are some of the issues that we want to be addressing and how can we best do it together,” said Smith. “I really think we can’t maintain the mindset of what’s the Church going to do? It’s what’s the Church going to do together with the Indigenous peoples, discerning with them together.”

The Canadian bishops’ conference in February issued pastoral letters to First Nations, Métis and Inuit, as well as a letter addressed to Canadian Catholics. The letters to the Indigenous populations were an invitation to “continue the journey” of reconciliation and healing, Smith said. It’s the responsibility of each bishop to meet with local Indigenous communities and leaders to go over the letter allowing them the opportunity to hear directly from the bishop how important reconciliation is for the Church.

These meetings also allow the bishops to hear and learn from Indigenous communities and leaders if and how they want to engage, what engagement means, the issues they see that the Church could work on together with them and how moving forward is going to unfold.

Smith has already met with some Indigenous leaders in Alberta and says he has been impressed by their openness and willingness to walk side-by-side.

How the Pope’s itinerary was curated was a topic of discussion at the reflection event that ran about 90 minutes. One question inquired as to why the Pope chose to visit Iqaluit directly. The community in Nunavut has a population of fewer than 8,000 people compared to more densely populated regions in southern Canada which the Pope did not visit.

Smith explained that Iqaluit was the only place in the north that had the capacity for planes to land in inclement weather, but more than that, the decision came from the Pope’s heart for the marginalized. The Pope had a particularly moving encounter with the Inuit delegation in Rome before any locations for the visit had been set. Smith, who was in the room during those meetings, says in the moment, the Pope, told the delegation, “I’m coming to your place,” highlighting his preferential option for those on the “peripheries.”

“We as Canadians know very, very well that life in the far north for the majority of the Catholic population is an unknown reality,” said Smith. “It is literally on the edge of the country, the northern edge, so periphery in that sense. Sadly and tragically, many of the Inuit peoples lived that experience of being marginalized or forgotten or on the side, and the Pope wants to overcome that wherever it exists.“

Smith recalled a moment during the Pope’s visit that raised for him the important question of, to what degree are Catholic Canadians determined to move this relationship with Indigenous people forward? At the end of the Mass at Ste. Anne de Beaupré Basilica east of Quebec City, where 90 per cent of those who gathered were Indigenous, there was a surge in the crowd around the sanctuary. Towards the back of the church, Smith noticed a young Indigenous woman with a baby.

As she made her way forward, he saw that the child appeared to have a serious birth defect and realized the woman was coming to get Pope Francis’ blessing. It was a meeting, Smith says, of two determinations — the Pope who was determined to come to Canada despite all of his physical challenges and the woman’s determination in action to get her child to the Pope. The moment highlights the reality that the apology marks a major shift in the history of Canada and the Church.

“Things changed from that visit,” said Smith. “It seems to me we need to be awakening within ourselves that sense of determination to move forward along the pathway of reconciliation.”

Generational differences in the responses of Indigenous peoples to the papal apology seem to suggest that older generations are more accepting of it than younger. Smith, who encountered a young woman who said she experienced “a lifting of anger” following the Pope’s apology, said overall it seems to depends on a person’s personal experiences and where they are on the healing journey.

Fr. Cristino Bouvette, who is of Métis and Cree-Ojibwe heritage, says younger generations are sometimes viewed as “unjustifiably angry” because they did not directly experience residential schools. As an Indigenous person of a younger generation himself, Bouvette feels the unaccepting response of many young people comes from a feeling that in some ways more was taken away from them. While older generations had some direct encounter with their history and culture, albeit being forced into residential school, many younger people feel robbed of that direct connection to their history. Though it is a different kind of trauma, the impact can sting deep.

“I believe that is part of the complexity that changes the different generations’ reactions to efforts that are being made now,” said Bouvette. “Some maybe feel (the apology) is a little bit too late. That’s not to say that there isn’t young people who I think are realizing that a future for them really does lie in reclaiming something as opposed to just resenting that it’s been taken.”

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