A pilgrimage of penance in Canada

Azza Radwan Sedky
Tuesday 9 Aug 2022

Roman Catholic Pope Francis’ recent visit to Canada was an opportunity for the Church to apologise for its role in abuses at Canadian residential schools, writes Azza Radwan Sedky


This July, in an unprecedented and historic trip, Roman Catholic Pope Francis visited Canada to offer apology, seek forgiveness, and hope for healing and reconciliation for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in abuses that historically took place in Canadian residential schools. 

Pope Francis called his visit to Canada “a pilgrimage of penance.” Over six days, he visited the provinces of Alberta and Quebec and the northern territory of Nunavut.

Pope Francis, frail and wheelchair bound, was determined to pursue the apology. He performed blessings and prayer services, sprinkled holy water on route to gatherings where devout followers awaited, delivered open-air masses to thousands, participated in the Lac St Ann Pilgrimage, and listened to songs, drumming, ululating, and the words of indigenous people.

More importantly, he also apologised for how Roman Catholic Church members had “co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.” 

Pope Francis repeated the plea on every stop he made and asked for forgiveness for the abuse of indigenous children at residential schools. “I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow, to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you,” he said.

On another occasion, he said “I am sorry. I ask for forgiveness, in particularly for the ways in which many members of the church and religious communities co-operated in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation.” 

To go back a few decades, Canada’s residential schools were mandatory and were run by the Canadian government and the Roman Catholic authorities. They were where indigenous children were forcibly taken from their parents under a shameful colonial policy. 

Between 1863 and 1998, more than 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their parents’ arms in Canada and placed in schools that served as concentration colonies. Since the children were not allowed to speak their language or practise their culture, and many of them were mistreated and abused, it was a policy that amounted to cultural genocide. The impacts of such schools reverberate today.

Recent investigations in Canada have uncovered several unmarked burial sites on land surrounding former residential schools. Hundreds, if not thousands, of unmarked children’s graves are being discovered, only to add to the pain and suffering.

Apologies to the indigenous peoples from the Canadian government and the Roman Catholic Church have been coming slowly but surely. In 2008, Stephen Harper, then Canada’s prime minister, apologised publicly to Canada’s indigenous peoples for the consequences of the residential schools. The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008, acknowledged the gut-wrenching history that indigenous peoples had suffered and vowed to support the sufferers.

In April 2022, a delegation of Canadian indigenous people went to Rome to press the Pope for an apology. Francis expressed his “sorrow and shame” at the abuse and the lack of respect for indigenous identities, culture, and spiritual values in the residential school system.

On his visit to Canada, and amidst indigenous survivors and their families, he apologised again. However, he did not apologise for the Roman Catholic Church’s institutional role in the system, saying instead it was the work of “a few bad actors” or individuals. This has led some to believe that his apology was not enough. 

According to the Associated Press, “the Canadian government made clear… that Pope Francis’ apology to indigenous peoples for abuses in the country’s church-run residential schools didn’t go far enough, suggesting that reconciliation over the fraught history is still very much a work in progress.”

Murray Sinclair, chief commissioner of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said that the Pope had failed to acknowledge the full role of the Church in the residential school system “by placing the blame on individuals.” He also said that “in many instances, it [the church’s role] was not just a collaboration, but an instigation” of the brutal actions.

More is expected of the Roman Catholic Church. Indigenous survivors want concrete actions, not only words. They want the turning over of church records of those who died at the schools, the funding of therapeutic programmes for survivors, and the facilitating of investigations of those responsible for the abuses. 

To forgive is one thing; to forget is another thing altogether. Some are unable to do either. Indigenous peoples cannot simply shake off the past and get over what happened to them because the pain remains alive, and the past persists as a daunting legacy. For the survivors of the residential schools, no matter how many times an apology is explicitly made it still does not take away the pain. And yet the Pope’s visit was exceptional and will play an important role in the healing process. 

Mary Simon, the governor-general of Canada and the first indigenous person to hold the office, told the Pope that “you said that reconciliation is ‘a grace that must be sought.’ To that I would also add that reconciliation is a grace that must be earned through continuous hard work and understanding,” leading everyone to expect more from the church. 

She also said, “Your Holiness, [survivors] came to hear what you had to say with hearts and minds open, some willing to forgive, some still living with the hurt, but all willing to listen.”

Despite the pain and the colonial history that will never be erased, the Pope’s apology to the survivors of Canada’s residential schools is a fundamental step towards reconciliation, and it is worth emulating for other victims around the world and in other places where atrocities took place and remain without closure or penitence. 

I would like to see the US apologise for the nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which maimed and killed over 250,000 Japanese and Koreans. I would also like to see the Turks acknowledge the Armenian Genocide during World War I and the deaths of thousands in 1915. Better yet, I would like to see the Israelis acknowledge the Palestinians and their rights. Many other unspeakable atrocities and injustices deserve the same penance. 

Apology can right the wrong even after hundreds of years, and it brings closure to haunting crises. In this respect, the Pope’s visit to Canada was indeed a momentous and historic event.

* The writer is a former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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