It was not the typical papal visit. Yes, there were the political dignitaries, the popemobile, and the larger-than-usual press corps. But the reason for the visit was different, the tone was different, and Pope Francis was different: he was in a wheelchair for a good part of his July visit to Canada.
He was there to honor a pledge he made in March of this year to the various representatives of the Métis, First Nations, and Inuit communities of Canada who had travelled to Rome to meet Francis personally and to ask on Vatican soil that he come to their soil on Turtle Island. They did so because they wanted him to apologize for the role of the Church in administering the Residential Schools that had been established by the federal government in the nineteenth century with the express purpose of ensuring total Indigenous assimilation into the white Victorian Christian society that was Canada at the time. The schools were in operation between 1869 and 1965, although the final school didn’t close until the mid-1990s. Over that time these institutions housed more than 150,000 children. Of that number, several thousand died while in custody.
At the behest of the government, Canada’s churches were charged with overseeing the residential schools and were funded to that end. Many denominations were involved, including the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Canada. But most schools fell under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, principally under the control of several religious orders, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate being the primary one.
As Duncan Campbell Scott, an esteemed Canadian Confederation poet and the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Residential Schools, observed in 1910, in response to criticism over the high number of Indigenous children who were perishing in the schools: “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem.” The historical resonances of the phrase “a final solution of our Indian problem” are unnerving if not frightening. Scott certainly saw his task as nothing less than “killing the Indian in the child,” as the first prime minister of Canada, Sir John A. MacDonald, so inelegantly put it.
The legacy of the schools has been a national scandal for decades: intergenerational trauma, disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rates, astoundingly high youth suicides, rampant addiction, inadequate education, poorly maintained reserves for status Indians, appallingly poor self-esteem infecting every aspect of Indigenous life. Canada was shamed into recognizing this sordid history with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report of 2015—a chronicle of suffering that was a thorough, unflinching, unqualified indictment of decades of abuse. The government and the churches were severely criticized, and in short order various steps were implemented to provide financial compensation for survivors and the descendants of survivors, along with commitments to educate the Canadian public on the history and scope of what the TRC commissioners identified as systemic discrimination culminating in cultural genocide.
The report contained ninety-four calls to action, among which was a potent summons to accountability by the bishop of Rome. “We call upon 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. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”