Sean Speer: Pope Francis’ sincere words of atonement are an important step

Our response cannot be mere acts of symbolism but nor can it be a retreat from the past
Pope Francis delivers his apology to Indigenous people for the church’s role in residential schools during a ceremony in Maskwacis, Alberta on July 25, 2022. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

I was working for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 “calls to action” in June 2015. It was nearly seven years since the commission was first established as part of the prime minister’s historic apology in the House of Commons and less than two months before the launch of the 2015 federal election campaign. 

The release rightly generated significant media and public attention. It was the result of six years of public hearings with as many as 6,500 former residential school students. Its “calls to action” (or recommendations) were sweeping including several concerning the historic recognition of past wrongs as well as many focused on contemporary issues.

Yet I remember at the time being struck by how much immediate attention was given to recommendation #58 which set out the following: 

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 to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.

One coincidental explanation for the heightened attention was that the Prime Minister traveled to the Vatican the following week and so there was a lot of speculation about whether he’d press the issue with Pope Francis. (I was on the trip but not part of the small delegation who met the pontiff.) 

Still, I must admit that, at the time, the focus on this single recommendation seemed disproportionate—especially relative to the ongoing socio-economic challenges facing Canada’s Indigenous peoples. My initial instinct was that the emphasis on a papal apology reflected our culture’s common tendency to focus on the simple yet symbolic over the complex yet substantive including, for instance, improving First Nation education. 

(If readers will permit me a brief digression, I think it’s unfair and regrettable that our media and political culture fails to give Prime Minister Harper more credit for his heartfelt apology—which the previous Liberal government resisted—and the highly ambitious yet ultimately unsuccessful First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act but that’s for another column.)

My initial doubts weren’t about the human tragedy of Indian residential schools themselves or their multi-generational consequences. I grew up in Thunder Bay. There’s a former residential school that operated for more than fifty years at the end of our street. My friend’s father was forced to go there. The school, which is now called Pope John II, is a junior high school that my brother subsequently attended. I’ve seen first-hand the residential school system’s moral and socio-economic costs. 

The only question in my mind was about the relative benefits of a papal apology for past wrongs compared to prioritizing contemporary policy changes. My technocratic mind drew me to legislative progress over spiritual progress. I was wrong. 

I’ve since come to understand that I was asking the wrong question. As part of the reconciliation process, I now better appreciate the right mix of actions to address the legacy and consequences of Indian residential schools including, but hardly limited to, a role for historic apologies. 

This is a fundamental point: the key to overcoming the intergenerational consequences of Indian residential schools cannot be mere acts of symbolism but nor can it involve a retreat from the past. 

It speaks to a broader insight into Indian residential school experience. One of the regrettable consequences of recent debates about the so-called “mass graves” in Kamloops and elsewhere is that they miss the point. They detract from the incontrovertible and terrible facts that we know about the residential school system. They transform a fundamentally moral matter into a politicized debate about the facts under the ground.

Yet much of what we know about residential schools isn’t the subject of debate. We know, for instance, from the residential schools’ settlement process the breadth and seriousness of the system’s consequences. The process has led to more than 79,000 payments for former students who had a so-called “common experience” and another 31,000 or so for extraordinary cases—people who were entitled to a compensation top-up due to evidence of specific abuses during their time at these schools. 

Even if these tragic cases hadn’t emerged, the residential school system would still have been rooted in a wicked and immoral presumption: The idea that the state, sometimes in conjunction with the church, ought to use its coercive powers to strip away the fundamental right to raise one’s child based on their family’s customs, language, and values and instead impose a state-mandated culture. As a parent, I can think of no greater violation—no greater act of injustice.

It’s why, for instance, Prime Minister Harper’s apology rightly acknowledged: “We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this.”   

Conservatives, if anything, root their understanding of the world in a dynamic interplay between history and society. That is to say, as Burke famously put it: “Society is a partnership…not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead and those who are to be born.”

The grievous mistake of residential schools poisoned that partnership for many former students and their children and grandchildren. They didn’t just condemn one or two generations to the trauma of being taken from their parents and in some cases being subjected to mental, physical, and sexual abuses. These traumas have been passed on from generations. Contemporary Indigenous peoples continue to live with the consequences.  

In this sense, while the Pope’s visit and apology are by no means the end of the reconciliation journey—indeed Alberta Premier Jason Kenney observed that residential schools “created deep wounds that aren’t easily or quickly healed”—, they do speak to the fundamental root of many of these ongoing intergenerational pathologies and therefore represent an opportunity to rebuild those generational partnerships. 

Pope Francis’ remarks were eloquent yet direct. Like the former Prime Minister, he similarly spoke of students “taken away from their homes at a young age” and how this experience “indelibly affected the relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren.” He bluntly called these long-term consequences “catastrophic.”  

The most poignant part of his speech though was when he directly addressed the inherent tension between the residential schools system’s embedded injustice and his own faith tradition. As he put it: “What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Pope’s visit to Canada and these sincere words of atonement aren’t a substitute for contemporary progress. And, in any case, not everyone was fully satisfied with them. But if they bring closure for some former students and their families, that’s in and of itself a positive step on the path to reconciliation.

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