There I sat in my clerical collar and black suit, a Canadian Anglican priest confident in my political and social awareness and in that of my church. In quiet yet confident tones the Indigenous leader who was speaking that day told a personal story. He loved his grandpa very much, he told us, but never understood why this learned, kind man would never hug him. One day, when grandpa was very elderly and our speaker was an adult, he asked him why. “I could never have told you this before,” said grandpa, “but when I was a child in a residential school, a hug meant only one thing. It meant that I was going to be raped.” Pause. “That’s why I could never hug you, that’s why.” I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling tears come to my eyes.
But tears have never been enough, and the obscenity of the residential school system has taken far too long to be exposed. That’s why Canadian Indigenous delegates were in Rome last week to meet the Pope, to ask for an apology for what Roman Catholic priests and teachers did between the 1840s and the 1990s, when more than 150,000 First Nations children were taken from their families in a mass effort to convert them, “make them white” and “take the Indian out of the Indian”. The concept was hideous and the application worse. There was physical and sexual abuse, lack of medical care and sheer cruelty.
On the final day of the visit Pope Francis delivered words that, frankly, the group didn’t think would be forthcoming. “I also 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, and the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” he said. “For the deplorable conduct of these 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.”
It has taken such a long time, but it means so very much.
Last year alone the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children, some as young as three years old, were discovered. They were anonymous and their bodies were given no respect or dignity. Horror stories abound, all part of what is Canada’s birth defect: its cultural genocide and physical destruction of people native to the land.
The Roman Catholic Church isn’t the only culprit, of course, but other religious institutions — along with secular bodies — acknowledged their crimes long ago, in the 1980s. To make matters worse, most of these schools where abuse took place were run by the Catholic Church, and while there had been vague statements of regret and sympathy it took intense public pressure and even threats regarding the funding of Catholic schools and the removal of tax-free status for churches for Canadian bishops to apologise last year. There were also examples of denial, arguments that it hadn’t been as bad as survivors claimed or, quite incredibly, that while abuse was regrettable at least these children were brought “the light of Christ”.
The Vatican hasn’t been as crass, but nevertheless still refuses to provide documents that would reveal details and culprits. Under the 2005 Indian Residential Schools Settlement the Canadian Church also promised at least $25 million for Indigenous communities but only a fraction of that amount was ever given. The Church argued that it couldn’t raise the money, but it did find large amounts to restore old churches, including the purchase of elaborate furniture and stained glass. The insulting juxtaposition wasn’t lost on survivors.
The papal apology comes after Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister, himself Catholic, asked the Pope personally to make a specific apology. The Canadian House of Commons even voted by an overwhelming margin to formally invite the Pope to do so. That was unprecedented in Canadian politics.
There is far more to do, of course. The Indigenous delegates asked the Pope to withdraw a papal bull from 1493 that gave Spain authority over the Americas and its peoples. This “doctrine of discovery” was obviously pernicious historically in that it justified the most appalling and widespread colonisation and racism, but has been used in land disputes right into this century. Its revocation would thus be far more than symbolic.
The delegation also requested that Rome return artifacts from its various museums and collections, and open up its archives so that the residential school system can be fully researched. In other words, this is in many ways the beginning of a process, and one that could take many years. If we’re in any doubt, witness how much work and pressure went in to persuading the Vatican to allow historians to scrutinise the papers of Pope Pius XII and his conduct during the Holocaust.
One of those in Rome last week was Tanya Talaga, a highly respected author and journalist of Anishinaabe heritage. She tweeted this: “Today, I visited Anima Mundi, part of the Vatican Museum with Indigenous ‘artifacts’ kept in the Church’s private collection. There is an ‘Ontario’ pipe stove from the 18th century, Haida Gwaii masks from the 18th Century, much more. I photographed them and was asked to leave.”
As I say, there is still far more to do.