Justin Trudeau has invited Pope Francis to travel to Canada and offer a formal apology for the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school system.
The move, which the prime minister said the Pope seemed open to, would help strengthen the reconciliation process.
“The Catholic Church is unique in the sense that it’s really a global church,” said Reid Locklin, associate professor of Christianity at the University of Toronto.
“There have been lots of apologies issued, but really in terms of who speaks for the Catholic Church ultimately is the Pope.”
More than 150,000 indigenous children attended residential schools over more than 100 years. Sexual and physical abuse were “rampant” at many of the institutions, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report.
The prospect of an apology is “very exciting,” Chief Robert Joseph said.
Joseph spent 11 years in a residential school in B.C. and called the experience “brutal.” He said he “came out of the school broken,” and descended into alcoholism and depression as a result, he explained.
“The symbolism of a current apology would be so strong,” he said. “It would be seen as a wider, all-inclusive apology, which would then contribute to some action on the part of all, not only Catholics, Christians in our country to really get on board with the idea of reconciliation.”
He was part of a delegation that travelled to the Vatican asking for an apology in 2009. At the time, Pope Benedict expressed “sorrow” for abuse suffered in residential schools, but didn’t formally apologize.
Pope Francis, in Bolivia in 2015, apologized for the Church’s role in the oppression of America’s Indigenous peoples.
So, for Joseph, it’s been a long time coming.
He believes the apology will also help survivors like himself with healing.
“What’s really important about the pope’s apology is that there’s still many survivors that suffer from trauma and haven’t found the degree of healing that they need. I think this apology could go a long way in helping them,” Joseph said.
But others are worried an apology doesn’t go far enough.
“It won’t change anything legally at all,” said Kathleen Mahoney, who was one of the major architects of the TRC, representing the Assembly of First Nations.
“If it gives people comfort then all the better,” said Mahoney. “It won’t achieve anything significant, you know, in terms of reconciliation of land claims, poverty or jobs, those kinds of things.”
An apology by the Pope on Canadian soil was one of 94 calls to action from the TRC. It called for the apology to be “similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse.” In that case, Pope Benedict issued an eight-page pastoral letter denouncing decades of sex abuse at the hands of Catholic priests in Ireland.
There have been apologies for the residential school system and admission of complicity in the past, said Mahoney.
“The Catholic Church long ago admitted liability when they entered into the settlement agreement with the (residential school) survivors,” said Mahoney.
This approach is different in that the Pope would travel to Canada to make the apology specifically for residential schools.
Religious groups involved in the residential schools have largely taken responsibility, said Locklin. But there’s still much work to do to in making things right.
“It would give moral strength and symbolic strength to the efforts of diocese and religious orders in Canada to really repair the relationship and to do the kind of hard work that reconciliation entails which isn’t simply saying I’m sorry and then forgetting about it,” said Locklin.
Following his meeting with Pope Francis, Trudeau appeared confident an official apology could happen.
“He reminded me that his entire life has been dedicated to supporting marginalized people in the world,” Trudeau said.
For its part, the federal government offered a full apology in 2008 for the residential school system, a “sad chapter in our history.”
Ottawa acknowledged “the consequences of the Indian Residential Schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language.”
— With files from Global’s Rebecca Joseph and the Canadian Press