Dispatch to Canada: Papal visit offers Catholic church chance to reconcile on residential schools – JURIST
Canadian law students and young lawyers report to JURIST on national and international developments in and affecting Canada. Mélanie Cantin is the chief correspondent for JURIST in Ottawa and a 2L at the University of Ottawa.
Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, is expected to arrive in Canada this Sunday for a long-promised visit. The visit is officially titled “Walking Together – Pope Francis Canada 2022” and comes about four months after an Indigenous delegation from Canada visited the Vatican. They were looking for excuses for the residential schools and trying to recover some indigenous artifacts that the Vatican held in its museums and vaults. They have received the first and are still in talks with the Vatican regarding the second.
The next visit is scheduled for July 24-29 and, according to organizers, will be an opportunity for the pope to “address the impact of colonization and the involvement of the Catholic Church in the operation of residential schools across Canada. “. The calendar of events indicates that the pope will visit and hold events in three Canadian cities: Edmonton in the province of Alberta, Quebec in the province of Quebec and Iqaluit in the territory of Nunavut.
In addition to celebrating Mass in each city, the Pope is to meet with residential school survivors at the former Ermineskin Residential School in Maskwacis, Alberta (located south of Edmonton and one of the largest residential school sites in Canada) to a public meeting and event, a private delegation of Aboriginals from Eastern Canada in Quebec City and a private meeting of survivors in Iqaluit. He will leave Canada Sunday evening from Iqaluit after an outdoor event and a farewell ceremony. The first event in Maskwacis is where the pope is expected to issue a more in-depth apology, possibly accompanied by a few additional remarks on behalf of the Catholic Church.
The last boarding school in Canada closed in 1996. These “schools” were established in the mid-1870s as part of a national effort to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the dominant culture of the time, being largely English-speaking and mostly Catholics. Although residential schools were far from the only method of assimilation employed by Canada against Indigenous peoples in what has recently been called a cultural genocide, it is probably the best known. This has been especially true since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Final Report in 2015, which shed light on the devastating experiences residential school survivors have had and continue to have today.
Given that the Catholic Church played a key role in this cultural genocide by operating the majority of residential schools with great leeway from the Canadian government, it was not surprising that the TRC listed a papal apology among its priorities. 94 calls to action. In particular, Pope Francis refuse to issue such an apology in 2018. “The Holy Father is aware of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he takes seriously,” says a letter written by the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). ). “Regarding Call to Action #58, after careful consideration of the request and extensive dialogue with the Bishops of Canada, he felt he could not respond personally.”
This raises the question: what has changed for the Church in the past four years, to the point that the pope finally apologized and decided to travel to Canada to personally meet the survivors? Some might point to the potential unmarked graves of hundreds of children discovered at various former residential schools (many of which are currently under investigation) as the catalyst, but that would hardly be accurate; Indigenous knowledge keepers have been discussing the issue of unmarked children’s graves at former residential school sites for decades, and the church did not issue an apology in May 2021, when the first discovery was performed at the Kamloops residential school in southern British Columbia.
This time, however, the organizers have declared that Indigenous peoples, especially “Elders, Knowledge Keepers and Residential School Survivors,” will be the priority. It’s good to hear, although I hope that some organizational flaws that have arisen with regard to events will be ironed out before the Pope arrives. On the one hand, despite attempts to stem the problem, there continues to be ticket sales issues for some of the Pope’s events, which could predictably result in ticket-seeking survivors paying far too much to attend an event close to their hearts. Although not all events require paid tickets, this is still a concern.
On a more positive note, in light of this issue and remarks from some communities that there was not enough indigenous participation and inclusion in the organizing process, the tour organizers committed to reach out to these communities and solve the problem. The Government of Canada has also expressed its readiness to provide additional funding to the already committed $35 million in order to facilitate the transportation of survivors to the various events.