On April 1, Pope Francis made a long-overdue apology to Indigenous peoples in Canada for the role Catholic leaders and administrators played in committing cultural genocide through the residential school system. The Pope called these leaders’ behaviour “deplorable” and asked for both God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of Indigenous peoples for how Catholics wounded, abused, and disrespected Indigenous people’s identities, cultures, and spiritual values. Though his words serve as an important acknowledgement and indictment of the Church’s crimes, this apology is only one step toward reconciliation in Canada. Various Indigenous leaders have expressed both relief and concern in response, while also emphasizing that it is not their responsibility to accept it—rather, it is the Church’s responsibility to make good on their promise to actively redress the broad, historic, and enduring harm it inflicted. Repairing past wrongs requires substantive commitment to dismantling the Church’s doctrine that enabled, and continues to enable, Canadian settler colonialism. The impact of the Catholic Church’s apology can only be realized when it is accompanied by structural changes that place Indigenous humanity over absolving Catholic and Canadian guilt.
The Pope’s apology comes after decades of Indigenous advocacy and must be matched with the material demands Indigenous leaders have made. If the Catholic Church does not follow through on its promises, such as the $29-million payment for programs that benefit residential school survivors, the apology may look self-serving. At times, the Church appears to entertain the dangerous notion that restorative justice measures relitigate dark pasts at the expense of present struggles, but in reality, the past and present cannot be separated. Residential schools, led by Catholic organizations along with other Christian denominations, tore children from their families in order to “civilize” them and to legitimate Canadian rule over the land that belonged to generations of Indigenous people. The “schools” worked to eradicate Indigenous cultures, and were sites of state-sanctioned physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse. Intergenerational trauma from these “schools” endures in various structural forms—from fractured families to poverty to houselessness to immense mental distress—all of which undermine Indigenous self-determination. As such, reparations in the form of a lump sum payment, while crucial, is not enough.
Following the discovery of the initial 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops, Indigenous community leaders continue to search the sites of former residential schools. Investigators have found over 1,800 so far, but this number is rapidly increasing. Given the scale of this tragedy, any attempts to overcredit the Pope’s apology, however innocuous, should be put into perspective. No matter how thorough and apologetic the Pope’s words may seem, he must use his institutional power to accept and amplify current Indigenous struggles against the reprehensible crimes carried out at the hands of the Catholic Church.
Given how embedded the Catholic Church is throughout Canada and Quebec to this day, Canadians must remain resistant; the apology should only ground solidarity moving forward. This acknowledgement is not only a much-needed apology, but also a statement that allows activists to hold the Church accountable. The Church and Canada must unequivocally denounce the Doctrine of Discovery that Christian, European imperial powers used to justify their claims to ownership when conquering Indigenous land. To do so would be to repudiate a racist, long-standing doctrine and would also follow up on previous apologies Popes have made for Catholic sins. At the same time, Pope Francis and Catholics should not use this apology to salvage the Church’s optics and save face for its harmful actions around the globe.
Governments and church officials should follow Indigenous leaders’ demands by actively resisting and rethinking policies in Quebec. Catholic-influenced Quebec social welfare programs should be scrutinized when Catholic-run shelters, for example, can further marginalize Indigenous people. When a group of the Kanien’kehá:ka kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) suspect that there are unmarked graves under Royal Victoria Hospital and have taken McGill to court, students must stand in solidarity and remember that reconciliation is an uncomfortable process that requires everyone to confront McGill and Canada’s shameful history. The Pope’s trip to Canada, set for late July, is an opportunity for the Church to actively listen to those affected and to be held accountable. No one can remain passive in the face of persisting settler colonial injustice.