The continued refusal by Canadian bishops to ask Pope Francis to issue a formal apology for the abuses suffered by thousands of Indigenous Canadians under the residential school system drew fierce condemnation from parliamentarians and survivors of the schools.
In a press conference held Wednesday in a room one level beneath the House of Commons, where then-prime minister Stephen Harper made a historic apology in 2008 for the residential school system, members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops told reporters they had been wrong to report that Pope Francis would not issue an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.
However, the bishops repeatedly refused to provide any clear answers about why they had previously stated the Pope did not feel he could personally apologize for the systemic abuse perpetrated in the schools — or when any such apology might come.
That left survivors of the schools and parliamentarians frustrated.
“Already when the Pope announced he wouldn’t apologize, I was of course, as a survivor, very disappointed. After hearing what they said today, now I’m disgusted,” said Romeo Saganash, an NDP MP and residential school survivor.
“You probably noticed that I walked out because I wanted to go throw up in the bathroom.”
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Richard Gagnon, Archbishop of Winnipeg and vice-president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Pope was waiting for the “opportune time” to make a trip to Canada.
He did not say whether any apology would come at that time, whether the organization would advise him to apologize, or why the Pope did not feel he could apologize for the actions carried out in the schools.
Despite being repeatedly pressed by reporters, Gagnon refused over the course of half an hour to provide any straight answers.
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The House of Commons voted on a motion Wednesday afternoon shortly after the press conference on whether to formally ask for a papal apology.
It did not pass by unanimous consent as one Conservative MP, Garnett Genuis, opposed the motion.
MPs will now debate the motion at a later date before holding a vote.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who introduced the motion, blasted the assertion made by the bishops that the “decentralized” structure of the Catholic Church meant the Pope had no responsibility to apologize for residential schools, which the bishops said were run entirely by separate entities of the Church.
Angus said that claim was “ridiculous” and that the bishops were attempting “to engage in obfuscation of historic facts.”
“The time has come for the Catholic Church in Canada to join the road of reconciliation,” he said.
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Senator Murray Sinclair, who served as commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also rejected the claim made by the bishops that it was separate entities, not the Catholic Church itself, that ran the schools.
“Everybody who worked for those entities was directed by the Church on what to do,” Sinclair said.
“They should feel shame, those who have made the decision to allow the Pope not to issue this apology.”
All three said the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops ought to directly call on Pope Francis to issue an apology.
While the former Pope made what has been described as an expression of sorrow during meetings with delegates from the Assembly of First Nations in 2009, that was not a formal apology.
The Catholic Church operated roughly two-thirds of the 130 residential schools that operated in Canada between the 1880s and 1996, when the last school closed.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended the schools where thousands later revealed they had been subject to emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
The other churches that operated the remainder of the residential schools have all issued apologies.