The 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was established with the express purpose of redressing “the legacy of residential schools,” included ninety-four recommendations and calls to action. One of those, No. 58, reads as follows:
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.
In a 2017 visit to the Vatican, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited this recommendation in requesting that Francis come to Canada to deliver such an apology. A year later, the pope wrote and declined. Trudeau expressed sadness over the pope’s decision and declared, not for the last time, his personal dismay as a Catholic that the request was not to be honored. Relations between the Canadian government and the Catholic Church have been cool since then. But they have grown appreciably worse after the discoveries of unmarked graves on the sites of former Indian residential schools in Kamloops, British Columbia, and Cowessess, Saskatchewan, in May and June. And there has plainly been an increase in anger across the nation: several Catholic churches have been torched, statues have been toppled, cathedral steps and doors have been splattered with red paint and otherwise defaced. Within the Catholic community, petitions calling for ecclesiastical accountability have circulated widely.
No manner of spin can make the Catholic Church in Canada look good right now. But the Catholic Church in Canada has only itself to blame. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the aboriginal peoples of Canada for the residential schools in the House of Commons on June 11, 2008. Prior to this, the federal government negotiated the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement—the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. Other Christian churches have apologized and made financial restitution in accordance with terms of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. But the Catholic Church remains resistant to implementing recommendation No. 58 and reluctant to meet a number of financial commitments it agreed to as a key signatory to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The overwhelming majority of Catholic laity are sickened by the weak response of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), and there are signs that church membership is suffering as a consequence. The episcopate itself appears paralyzed by the escalating rage over its obduracy.
After the discoveries of the unmarked graves, the calls for the pope to come to Canada have increased, amplified by the prime minister and even by some parish clergy. But the puzzling intransigence of the CCCB continues to provoke Catholics and non-Catholics both. Given that the religious orders that ran the residential schools have apologized, and frequently, and that the two principal orders, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns, have vowed to provide full access to the private records and accounts kept during the time of their oversight, the defiant stance of the CCCB compromises the moral leadership of the full Catholic community.