Pope’s apology in Bolivia a ‘good sign’ for residential school survivors: TRC commissioner

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Pope Francis waves as he leaves the Bolivian prison of Palmasola in Santa Cruz, Bolivia July 10, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

An historic apology from the Pope for the “grave sins” of the church during the colonization of the Americas is a sign the pontiff recognizes the sad history of his church when it comes to Indigenous peoples, says the head of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Justice Murray Sinclair says the apology delivered Thursday by Pope Francis in Bolivia gives hope that the Catholic leader may comply with his recommendation that the church apologize for its role in residential schools here in Canada.

“This can be taken perhaps as an indication that maybe he will be open to complying with, accepting our recommendation, that he come to Canada and apologize specifically to survivors of residential schools and their families…,” Sinclair tells Yahoo Canada News.

“Overall, I see it as a good sign.”

Pope Francis made the plea for forgiveness during a speech on social justice.

“I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God,” the pontiff said.

“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offence of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

The pontiff said thousands and thousands of priests were opposed to the abuses and the violence that were employed.

"But we never apologized, so I now ask for forgiveness.”

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says Pope Francis has shown real moral leadership with the apology. He credits a global movement of Indigenous peoples for bringing about the effort at reconciliation.

“I am seeking to meet with Pope Francis to personally urge him to make an apology here in Canada for the role of the Catholic Church in the suffering of Indian residential school survivors,” Bellegarde says in a statement.

He also wants the pontiff to renounce the papal directive for discovery used as a rationale for appropriating indigenous land and resources all over the world.

Bellegarde says he agrees with Pope Francis that colonialism still exists.

“[It] continues to foster inequality, poverty and an unhealthy relationship with Mother Earth,” he says. “First Nations in Canada are very much a part of the global social movement that aims to dismantle the inequalities and environmental abuses that make up the new colonialism."

Reports on the Catholic leader’s comments were vague but Sinclair says they appear to be specific to events in Bolivia and Peru after the arrival of the Spanish.

Pope Francis’s apology does recognize that the Catholic Church failed to respect the cultural and spiritual beliefs of Indigenous peoples.

“But the experience of [Bolivian] people and the experience of residential school survivors are not identical,” he says. “I think residential school survivors are entitled to have their particular needs met through an appropriate apology.”

Beginning as early as the 1870s, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forcibly enrolled in Indian residential schools.

More than 70 per cent of the government-funded, church-run schools were operated by the Catholic Church. The last school closed in 1996.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI expressed “sorrow” to a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations for the abuse and “deplorable” conditions that First Nations student suffered in church-run residential schools.

Among the 94 recommendations Sinclair made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released last month was a call for an apology from the Pope for the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse,” on Canadian soil, within a year.

“I think the specific experience of residential school survivors in Canada calls for a specific apology,” Sinclair says.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt did not respond to a request for an interview. Valcourt sent a letter bringing the commission recommendations to the attention of the Vatican but did not explicitly request an apology. Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly didn’t raise the issue of an apology either during a brief visit with the pontiff last month.