Okanagan Chief questions sincerity of possible visit from Pope

·6 min read

Pope Francis’ planned visit to so-called Canada is little more than a “publicity exercise on the part of the Vatican,” says Chief Byron Louis of the Okanagan Indian Band.

“I really doubt their sincerity in this,” he says.

On Oct. 27, the Vatican released a statement announcing that “in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples,” the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has “invited the Holy Father to make an apostolic journey to Canada.”

The Pope has apparently accepted this invitation — indicating “his willingness to visit the country on a date to be settled in due course.”

But Louis says he’s skeptical about the timing of the Pope’s commitment — it so closely follows recent confirmations of mass unmarked graves on the grounds of former church and government-run institutions, which masqueraded for more than 150 years as “schools” for Indigenous children.

Meanwhile, the “explicit intent” of these schools was “to separate these children from their families and cultures,” as per the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

“What it took to actually get him here … I found very troubling,” says Louis.

“Those children that were discovered in Kamloops basically have drug the Catholic Church in the mirror and forced them to look at themselves. Now, this is their response to it … ‘ ‘I guess now we better apologize because this makes us really look bad.’

IndigiNews asked Louis what he would say to Pope Francis if he had the chance to sit down with him. “Since your existence in the new world … every crime committed against us that was committed … [or] sanctioned by you, or indirectly sanctioned by the Catholic Church, was done in the name of God.

“I wouldn’t be worried about our forgiveness. I would be worried about, basically, the crimes that were committed in God’s name.”

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called on the Catholic Church to apologize in their 94 Calls to Action, as part of their final report.

Call to Action #58 calls 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.”

More recently, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc also called for “an apology from the highest level of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, as one of the many stages of the healing journey.” In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir confirmed that 215 unmarked children’s graves were found on the former grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“The Roman Catholic Church has repeatedly refused to accept responsibility or formally apologize for its direct role in the numerous and horrific abuses committed against Indigenous children through the Residential School system,” reads a statement from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, published on Oct. 28.

In addition to an apology, they’re calling for the Church to live up to “promises made by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops with regards to the disclosure of documents and information to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and of the raising of funds for Indian Residential School survivors.”

In keeping with Survivors and advocates across the country, Louis says an apology alone won’t cut it.

An apology “requires much more than sincerity,” he says. “An apology should also have a commitment to the change of ways … ‘From here on in this is what we’re going to do,’ is an apology. And anything short of that is nothing more than propaganda.”

A more meaningful action would be rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery, as per the TRC’s Call to Action #49, says Louis.

“We call upon all religious denominations and faith groups who have not already done so to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius,” reads the call.

“They should at least do that,” Louis says. “The question to the Catholic Church is: which side of history do you want to fall on?”

In their final report, the TRC wrote about how the Doctrine of Discovery provided a framework for land theft and colonization that continues to inform Canadian courts today.

“In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the first of four orders, referred to as ‘papal bulls’ … that granted most of North and South America to Spain, the kingdom that had sponsored Columbus’s voyage of the preceding year. These orders helped shape the political and legal arguments that have come to be referred to as the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ which was used to justify the colonization of the Americas in the sixteenth century,” wrote the TRC.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has likewise called on the Pope to not only apologize for the Doctrine of Discovery but also to extinguish it.

“Discovery was used as legal and moral justification for colonial dispossession of sovereign Indigenous Nations, including First Nations in what is now Canada. During the European ‘Age of Discovery’, Christian explorers ‘claimed’ lands for their monarchs who felt they could exploit the land, regardless of the original inhabitants,” reads a 2018 statement by the AFN.

“This was invalidly based on the presumed racial superiority of European Christian peoples and was used to dehumanize, exploit and subjugate Indigenous Peoples and dispossess us of our most basic rights. This was the very foundation of genocide. Such ideology [led] to practices that continue through modern-day laws and policies.”

While the CCCB has “released a statement that repudiates discovery … this is not enough,” the AFN wrote.

IndigiNews asked the CCCB when Pope Francis plans to visit Canada.

“When we have the details, and when we’re more knowledgeable about those details we will be making a release with the information that we have,” a spokesperson told IndigiNews on Nov. 10.

In the meantime, on Dec. 17, a delegation of Indigenous leadership, Survivors, Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and youth will travel to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis “to foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing.”

This visit was organized by the CCCB.

“Mutual listening is the beginning of our common efforts to bring about shared and long-lasting reconciliation, authentic healing and bridge building,” reads a statement published by the CCCB in June.

The bishops say the visit will give the Pope the opportunity to “address the impact of colonization and the implication of the Church in the residential schools, so as to respond to the suffering of Indigenous Peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma.”

Kelsie Kilawna, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse

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