TRC chair Sen. Murray Sinclair said Catholic bishops will wear the shame of the past on Indian residential schools. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Bishops’ actions a blow to reconciliation efforts

By  Joe Gunn
  • May 4, 2018

When we arrived here, we took their land. Then we took their children. In 2018, we’re taking away the hope of sincere reconciliation.

In 2015 Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued its final report on Indian residential schools, relating the “cultural genocide” that took place, along with much physical and sexual abuse. The report recommended 94 Calls to Action. Some of them were specifically directed to the four churches that ran the schools. But all of them challenged every faith community, all governments and the entire Canadian public. Reconciliation must involve us all.

It’s not clear, unfortunately, that all the Canadian Catholic bishops get that. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced two days before Good Friday that the Pope will not come to Canada now to offer an apology to Indigenous peoples for residential schools. This news has caused more pain to Aboriginal people, deeply saddening those with whom I have talked who remain in the Church.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a private audience with Pope Francis in May 2017, he directly invited the pontiff to come to Canada and issue such an apology. Just before Easter 2018, culminating a Lenten season which encouraged the faithful to examine consciences, confess sins and do penance, it seems the Catholic bishops of Canada have been unable to do the same.

To be clear, the CCCB’s March 27 “letter to Indigenous Peoples in Canada” reported that Pope Francis “felt he could not personally respond” after careful consideration of the invitations. Having worked 11 years at the CCCB, I recognize this as code language. The plain truth is that the Catholic bishops will not admit they are divided. They could not agree to issue an invitation to their Pope. 

Francis is not a “top-down” hierarch. This is a man who, had he been invited, would have come. (Francis issued a public apology to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas in Bolivia in 2015.) But he will never agree to arrive on Canadian soil, or issue an apology to Indigenous people here, without the express invitation and agreement of the bishops of Canada.

Not all bishops wanted the pontiff to stay away. In 2017, the bishops of Saskatchewan expressed support for a visit. Archbishop Murray Chatlain said, “We hope that the Holy Father, coming and meeting with Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis representatives from all of Canada, where he may express an apology and could communicate the whole Church’s commitment to be in real dialogue with each other, would be a great blessing.”

There was understandable negative fallout from the bishops’ decision. Trudeau expressed his disappointment with this news. Indigenous leaders such as Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he would continue to extend an invitation. Others expressed sentiments ranging from outrage to deep pain. 

Senator Murray Sinclair, who led the TRC, remarked that, “The Anglican Church has apologized, the United Church has issued an apology, the Presbyterians have issued an apology. But we’ve heard nothing of that sort from the Catholics.” The senator wondered if the fear of litigation is still the major concern of Catholic bishops. “Also, I believe there is a strong element within the Church leadership that residential school survivors are not telling the truth.”

Sinclair’s frustration was echoed on his Facebook page in stark language: “The shame of those who abused children in their institutions in the past is now theirs to wear.”

I belong to an Oblate parish in Ottawa where reconciliation with Indigenous people has become a priority. We have organized a half-dozen events in the past two years, and work directly in partnership with Aboriginal ministry leaders of the archdiocese. Our last event, where we expected 30-40 people, attracted more than 90. 

Yet, unlike our friends in Protestant churches, we have no idea what the reconciliation plan for our Church is (if any) on the national or diocesan levels. Kairos  has a vibrant program of Indigenous reconciliation, but the Catholic bishops abandoned this ecumenical organization in late 2015. 

“Listening circles” (attended by local bishops) have been held or are planned in several places across Canada in preparation for a pastoral letter on Aboriginal issues, for release by the CCCB this autumn. But local reconciliation efforts, while sincere, cannot replace the need for the Catholic leadership to play their roles directly inside our parishes and Catholic institutions.

Pope Francis could eventually come and might even apologize for the Church’s role in running the majority of Canada’s residential schools. In the meantime, Canadian Catholics must increase active efforts to reconcile with Indigenous peoples. Words are not enough, and leadership alone will not suffice. 

But unfortunately, after the bishops’ decision, the grassroots reconciliation efforts just got a whole lot harder.

(Gunn is executive director of Citizens for Public Justice and author of the forthcoming book, Journeys to Justice.)

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