Pope’s apology incomplete but a start, leaders say

The Pope’s apology to Indigenous peoples is “long overdue” and “welcome for today as far as it goes,” says Marie Wilson, former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A week-long trip to Rome and the Vatican by Indigenous delegates resulted in a qualified apology from the Pope regarding abuses in Catholic Church-run residential schools and a commitment from him to come to Canada “where I will be able better to express to you my closeness,” said the pontiff.

“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”


For six years, Wilson and the TRC listened to residential school survivors and their families recount their experiences in those institutions and the residential school system’s intergenerational legacy.

The TRC’s 2015 final report featured 94 calls to action, including one that urged the Pope to “issue an apology to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools … to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said in a statement: “It is long past time that the Church will begin to take responsibility for its role in the residential school system.”

The third TRC commissioner, Chief Wilton Littlechild, was part of the Assembly of First Nations’ delegation to the Vatican. The Pope’s apology came on Littlechild’s birthday.

“I wish we could go back in time to tell that six-year-old, who attended a residential school in Alberta, that one day he would be in the room hearing an apology directly from the Pope for all he has been through,” said Sinclair about Littlechild.


Apology ‘opens a door’

The TRC had called for a papal apology to happen within one year of issuing its final report. There were concerns, said Wilson, that a substantial delay would mean survivors passed away without hearing that apology.

Wilson pointed out that other churches involved in operating residential schools in Canada – Anglican, Presbyterian and United – apologized well before the TRC was even established, in 2008, through the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Wilson said though the apology is only “scratching the surface of what I would hope to hear,” it was “important how the people on the ground received that and how it touched them.”

In British Columbia, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council acknowledged in a statement that for some survivors, the apology was enough, but others felt anger because the Pope did not apologize for the role the Catholic Church as an entity played.

“I feel shame – sorrow and shame – for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” the Pope said.

In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the apology a “step forward.”

However, he said, “We cannot separate the legacy of the residential school system from the institutions that created, maintained, and operated it, including the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church.”

Métis and Inuit delegations held audiences with the Pope on March 28, while the First Nations delegation had an audience on March 31.

Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron, who was part of the March 28 Métis audience, said in a statement the Pope’s apology “opens a door for the Métis Nation to continue moving forward on our healing journey and it opens a door for us to continue to fight for action.”

Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, who led the Assembly of First Nations delegation, said his delegation left Rome “optimistic to receive an apology offered to all our nation of families when the Pope visits Turtle Island later this year.”

One more audience scheduled

While Pope Francis committed to “meeting you when I visit your native lands, where your families live,” he did not explicitly commit to delivering a second or fuller apology.

An apology delivered in Canada must go further, said Terry Teegee, the Assembly of First Nations’ BC regional chief.

“The Pope’s claim that only some church members were responsible for these crimes continues to sidestep the role the entire institution played in committing this horrific abuse,” he said.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation said the Pope’s visit to Canada will occur in July. In a general address on April 1, Pope Francis said he wanted to celebrate St Anne with the Indigenous people in Canada. The Feast of St Anne is celebrated on July 26.

Pope Francis will be meeting with one more Indigenous delegation this month. The Manitoba Métis Federation has a private audience scheduled with the Pope for April 21.

“It is our hope that this apology, combined with an exclusive meeting between Pope Francis and the Red River Métis, will help begin the healing process and unite us on the journey of reconciliation and revitalization,” said Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand in a statement. The federation split from the Métis National Council last September.