Parliament is holding what is being deemed a “historic” debate on whether to ask Pope Francis to formally apologize for the significant role the Catholic Church played in the residential school system.
Members of Parliament will spend much of the day discussing a motion tabled by NDP MP Charlie Angus to have the House of Commons officially ask the Pope to follow in the steps of the other three churches involved in residential schools and issue an apology for its role in running roughly two-thirds of the residential schools in Canada.
“This is a historic day, it’s a hopeful day, it’s a happy day, where Canada comes to terms with its history by reaching out to Pope Francis, a man who has built a reputation around the world as a voice for justice and reconciliation, and we’re calling on the Pope to walk with us on this journey to reconciliation,” Angus said.
“There is no moving forward as a nation until we’ve done this.”
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had personally asked the Pope to do so during a visit to the Vatican in 2017 and a papal apology was one of more than 90 recommendations issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In March 2018, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter saying they had spoken with Pope Francis about whether he should apologize on behalf of the Church but that “he felt that he could not personally respond.”
That refusal to apologize sparked fierce condemnation, with Trudeau, himself a practicing Catholic, saying he was “disappointed” by the decision.
Angus as well as NDP MP Romeo Saganash, a survivor of residential schools, have been pushing since that refusal to call on the Catholic Church and the Pope to issue an apology in line with those that the Church has offered in the past to survivors of sexual abuse in Ireland.
They also have dismissed the refusal as an attempt by bishops to try to lessen the Church’s legal culpability for the systemic sexual, emotional and physical abuses carried out against thousands of Indigenous children forced to attend the schools, and criticized continued refusal by the leadership of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in recent weeks to say clearly whether the Pope will apologize in the future.
While the former pope made an “expression of sorrow” for residential schools in 2009, survivors of the schools have said that does not go far enough.
MPs echoed that sentiment during debate in the House of Commons, with members from all parties rising to speak in favour of the motion.
“There’s a significant difference between what was shared in 2009 and what we are asking for today,” said Conservative MP Cathy McLeod.
Liberal MP Adam Vaughn praised Angus for his work advocating for the motion and for residential school survivors during the debate.
Vaughn stressed that Angus’s work and passion had made the issue one it was impossible for members to ignore.
“It’s a good day in Parliament when our hearts and minds are open to new possibilities.”
Widespread impacts on families, MPs shared
Several MPs also shared the ways residential schools had touched their own families.
NDP MP Gord Johns shared an emotional speech in which he described the way he felt to learn that his adoptive Cree father had brothers, Wayne and Stewart, who had not survived residential schools.
“It took me years to realize that my father was not the oldest,” Johns said.
Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu thanked Johns for sharing his story and said the pain still felt among communities and survivors who experienced the schools firsthand must be acknowledged.
“As the mother of two non-status Metis children, I cannot imagine the pain of having my children taken away,” she said.
Liberal MP Michael McLeod told the House of Commons that in the communities he represents in the Northwest Territories, the effects of residential schools are still widely felt.
He said that while he, like many other MPs who expressed similar sentiments during the debate, felt concern about the place of Parliament to request an apology from the head of a religious institution, the blatant lack of willingness on behalf of the Pope to take responsibility for the role of the Church in the residential school system required that those concerns be put aside.
“Forcing someone to apologize doesn’t really sit well with me,” McLeod said.
“However, I think it’s important that we flag the issue that the Pope is really not taking responsibility for generations and generations of people that attended the residential school program.”
The motion up for debate today was introduced in the House of Commons on April 18 but failed to get unanimous consent after one Conservative MP, Garnett Genuis, voted against it.
Failure to get unanimous consent simply meant the motion had to proceed to a full debate and vote.
A vote is scheduled for next week and the motion is widely expected to be adopted by nearly all MPs.