Canadian aboriginals seek renewed partnership with Catholic church

  • April 16, 2009

{mosimage}OTTAWA - When Canada’s aboriginal leaders meet with the Pope April 29 they hope to turn the page on the tragic legacy of Indian residential schools.

“This meeting has the potential to be a historic and momentous occasion for First Nations, survivors, Canadian Catholics and indeed all Canadians,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine at an April 15 news conference. “I am both honoured and excited to have this opportunity to meet with the Pope to discuss this important matter and to move forward to work towards real reconciliation.”

“The Pope is a bridge builder,” said Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) president Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber of Benedict XVI's invitation to aboriginal leaders to meet him at the Vatican.

“He has invited us to visit him in Rome, in a gesture of reconciliation and healing.”

Weisgerber and leaders of the religious communities that ran schools will also be present for a private audience that will follow the Pope’s weekly general audience. The Pope is expected to present the aboriginal leaders with a written statement to mark the common desire to pursue reconciliation and forgiveness.

Weisgerber told the news conference about the “close association” between the Catholic Church and Canada’s indigenous peoples that goes back 500 years to the earliest settlements. 

“Most of this history has been a wonderful sharing of faith and witness, but there have also been moments of sorrow,” he said, describing the former residential schools as “among the greatest disappointments.”

Though many Catholics dedicated their lives to provide a good education in these schools, they faced “terrible challenges” that included cultural differences inadequate funding, human failings and “instances of exploitation and cruelty,” he said.

Fontaine also spoke of the healthy relationship that existed with the Catholic Church before the “terrible policy of the federal government” designed to “eradicate any sense of Indianness” fractured it. Various church denominations and Catholic religious orders and dioceses ran schools for the government that forced children out of their homes and communities into the schools.

Impetus for the Pope’s invitation began last September when Fontaine addressed the CCCB’s annual plenary in Cornwall. He appealed to the bishops for help in addressing the poverty of First Nations peoples.

Weisgerber said he met with the Pope last November and told him about the “great suffering of the aboriginal community in Canada.” He said that in order for the Catholic Church to be able to help, the legacy of the residential schools needed to be addressed. The Pope understood “very quickly,” he said.

Last June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the government of Canada for the schools that Fontaine said was designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” The Anglican, United and Presbyterian Churches have all issued formal apologies for their role in running the schools. In advance interviews, Fontaine said he hoped for an apology from the Catholic Church that would “close the circle” and begin the path of reconciliation.

He avoided using the word apology at the news conference, however.

“It is my fervent hope that this papal audience will include a statement from Pope Benedict XVI to all the survivors of Indian residential schools,” said Fontaine. “We also hope that the statement will reference the role the Catholic Church played in the administration and operation of the schools and the impact it had on survivors and our communities.”

Journalists pressed both leaders on whether the Pope would issue a formal apology. 

“It would be impolite to tell the Pope what to say,” the archbishop said, noting that words like apology have different meanings in different languages that pose linguistic problems.

“What I think is most important is that there be acknowledgement of the pain and suffering of the kind of dysfunction of the schools and the role of the church in all of that.”

He pointed out that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order that ran most of the schools, issued a formal apology in 1991. Other orders and bishops of dioceses that ran schools have also done so. Because there is no one legal entity for the Catholic Church in Canada, there could be no official apology because it is not structured like other denominations. The Pope is the only one who can speak for the Catholic Church as a whole, he said.

Fontaine said he hoped for something like the statements the Pope made during visits to the United States and Australia about regret for the sexual abuses of priests. He stressed that he is as interested in a commitment to rebuild a positive relationship. The word “apology” has been problematic for liability reasons, but the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement had settled that, he said, adding he was not interested in handcuffing anyone to a particular word.  

“Thousands of individuals were harmed in the residential schools here,” he said. “In whatever language, however it’s expressed — the hard work lies beyond us, after this particular audience is done, we have to move on.”

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