Governor General Mary Simon, the first Inuit viceregal representative, was present. So did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, alongside First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations from across the country.
As the pope wraps up his visit to Canada on Friday, many of the people he came to comfort say he has failed to come up with a concrete way forward. Aside from a vague promise to carry out a “serious investigation into the facts of what happened”, many observers wondered what would happen next. What concrete actions will the pope take to improve the lives of survivors?
At stake is the ability of tens of thousands of survivors to heal after enduring decades of violence and abuse, which have inflicted well-documented intergenerational trauma on their descendants.
They have already heard words of atonement.
In 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the role of the federal government in forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes and placing them in residential institutions designed to destroy their languages, culture and their traditional traditions. A new era of truth and reconciliation has begun.
There were moments of hope.
Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations at the time and a residential school survivor, accepted Harper’s apology on the floor of the House of Commons and set his sights on the future.
“We must not falter in our duty now. Emboldened by this spectacle of history, it is possible to end our racial nightmare together,” Fontaine told the chamber. “Memories of residential schools sometimes cut our souls like ruthless knives. This day will help us put this pain behind us.
There was no denying the story of the moment. That apology launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that heard from thousands of residential school survivors and produced a landmark report in 2015 with 94 calls to action to advance reconciliation.
Harper first introduced the concept to many Canadians in 2008.
He said the TRC “will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and other Canadians, one based on knowledge of our shared history, mutual respect and a desire to move forward. forward with a renewed understanding that families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.
Fourteen years later, reconciliation is truly a work in progress.
Pope Francis’ apology for the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools admits “deplorable evil” perpetrated by members of the Church, whose policies have had “catastrophic” effects on children and their families.
But he only apologized for the actions of certain individuals, not for the institution as a whole.
Francois also did not address the subject of reparations. Nor did he pledge to release documents that would help locate the final resting places of many Indigenous children. He said nothing about revoking a 15th-century papal edict that denied sovereignty to non-Christians — the “Doctrine of Discovery” — which historians say underlies centuries of dehumanization of Indigenous Peoples.
The former TRC chair, a retired judge and senator named Murray Sinclair, acknowledged the positive impact of Francis’ apology on many survivors who listened. But he said the expression of remorse left a “deep hole” regarding the full role of the church in the school system.
Sinclair offered another way forward.
“There is a better way that the Church – and indeed all Canadians – can follow: take responsibility for past actions and resolve to do better on this path of reconciliation,” he wrote in a statement. . “We have to commit to talking to each other and talking to each other with respect.”
Canada’s relationship with reconciliation has followed a predictable path since Harper’s apology. Pollsters rarely find him near the top of the average Canadian’s list of election priorities, but spikes in attention reliably produce promises from politicians to recommit to doing better.
Summer 2021 marked the start of another new chapter. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia has made global headlines after announcing the discovery of more than 200 potentially unmarked graves near the site of a residential school. Two weeks later, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan revealed hundreds more.
None of these discoveries came as a surprise to people whose oral histories spoke of unmarked graves. The TRC report even referenced them. But it was shocking news for many Canadians unaware of the story.
Trudeau had come to power in 2015 promising to implement the TRC’s dozens of calls to action – a historic pledge to do everything in government’s power to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples.
After Cowesses, Trudeau again apologized for the government’s role in schools – and once again pledged to do better.
“We will continue to put Indigenous peoples and their wishes at the center of everything we do,” he said. “We are here to be a partner in whatever is necessary to uncover the full truth and ensure reconciliation is possible.”
On the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation last September, a somber day of reflection for many, Trudeau traveled to the West Coast for a brief vacation – flying over Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia. He later apologized for an error in judgement.
“Instead of talking about truth and reconciliation, people talked about me, and it’s up to me,” he said. “I take responsibility for it.”
The Prime Minister visited the community a few weeks later in October. Ashley Michel, a Secwe̓pemc mother, took the microphone at a televised event and held back tears as she spoke directly to Trudeau. She demanded better days ahead.
“Our children don’t need to feel this pain, and it stops with my generation,” she said. “I want our children to have a future where their voice is heard. Where they don’t have to worry about being another statistic. Where our people are safe. So that our children have drinking water. Where they don’t have to defend their sacred traditional land.
In April, a delegation of survivors visited the pope in Rome. Fontaine was also in that room, hoping for a long-awaited apology. To his surprise, Francis delivered one in a private audience at the end of the trip – and pledged to repeat it on First Nations territory.
After his visit to Maskwacis, the pope led an oversized Mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton and visited an out-of-town shrine. He then flew to Quebec to meet with Trudeau, as well as local Indigenous representatives.
During evening prayers in Quebec, the pope acknowledged “the evil perpetrated by certain sons and daughters (of the Church)” on “minors and vulnerable people” in the form of sexual abuse.
Francis’ last stop before returning to Rome is in the territory of Nunavut, where he will meet with Inuit survivors of residential schools on Friday afternoon.
Both excuses failed in the eyes of Sinclair and other prominent Indigenous advocates. Not to mention Trudeau, who pushed for “concrete action” by the Church.
“We don’t have to accept his hollow apologies — even though they were meaningful and necessary to some,” wrote Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and chair of Indigenous governance at Metropolitan University of Toronto, in the United States. TorontoStar. “Apologies are best presented with concrete actions that must precede any request for forgiveness.”
Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Truth and Reconciliation Chair at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., said a papal apology at the very least changes the stories Indigenous peoples can pass on to future generations.
“People will now have a story to tell their children, their grandchildren, about the pope’s visit and his acknowledgment that this evil has been done,” she told POLITICO. “It will also help explain to Canadians in general that this is the truth of the reconciliation story.”
But apologies by themselves won’t pave the way forward, Wesley-Esquimaux said. Seven years after the TRC’s report landed on the desks of policymakers and on the front pages of Canadian newspapers, she said it’s unclear how to finish the job.
“I work for reconciliation every day. And I just call it the paradox of reconciliation,” she said. “We say all these things, but what do we do? What is the end goal? How will we know when we get there? »
Trudeau’s legacy with Indigenous peoples depends on his government’s ability to adequately answer these questions.
For Treaty 6 Grand Chief George Arcand Jr., the man on whose lands the pope expressed remorse, this moment marked at least another new beginning.
“I only see Pope Francis’ apology today as a first step in the Church to making amends with our people,” he said. “After meeting (the) pope and hearing his words, I believe there is a way forward together. There is a lot of work to be done.”
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