As Pope Francis flew back to Rome on July 29 after his nearly week-long visit to Canada, members of Indigenous communities and advocates were left with mixed emotions and a looming question: what’s next?
Shortly after the Pope delivered his apology on Canadian soil for the Church’s role in residential schools on July 25, Cindy Blackstock published “A Post Apology ‘To Do’ List,” which calls on the Pope to commit a series of actions on behalf of the Catholic Church and the Holy See.
“Apologies to me are not about words. Most importantly, they’re about actions,” Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and a member of the Gitxsan Nation, told Global News.
The eight items on that list are drawn from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report, said Blackstock.
Published in 2015, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) provides wide-ranging accounts of the horrors endured in the residential school system as well as recommendations about how Canadian institutions can make things right.
In December 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accepted the TRC’s report on behalf of Canada as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
Blackstock’s list includes demands such as publicly revoking the 1493 Papal Bulls — which lead to the Doctrine of Discovery — returning Indigenous artifacts, including Indigenous teaching in church practices and ensuring transparency.
Blackstock said when she saw the Pope’s apology, she thought she had heard “the same type of apology given by the Canadian government”— an apology without “action, real reform and learning.”
“I felt compelled to educate Canadians that there are things that the church can and ought to do,” she told Global News.
What did Pope Francis say during his Canada trip?
The Pope began his multi-day visit to Canada on July 24. During the trip, he asked for “forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples” in Maskwacis, Alta.
While in Quebec City on July 28, Pope Francis also acknowledged sexual abuse inflicted on “minors and vulnerable people,” saying that the church in Canada is on a new path after being devastated by “the evil perpetrated by some of its sons and daughters.”
However, some Indigenous advocates — including Murray Sinclair, who is a former senator and chair of the TRC — criticized the Pope for not fully acknowledging the systemic racism and violence in Catholic Church in his apology. That left what Sinclair called “a deep hole” in the acknowledgement of the Church’s role in the residential school system.
“While an apology has been made, the same doctrine is in place. The Pope and the Church remain silent on the most problematic tenets of its belief system: that Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world should not have the right to practice their own faith, culture and traditions,” Sinclair, who served as the chair of TRC from 2009 to 2015, wrote in a statement posted to Twitter.
According to Blackstock, the most important thing the Pope said was on his plane back to Rome on Friday, where he said the abuses Indigenous Peoples faced while being forced into the residential school system amounted to genocide.
“It was genocide. And thus far, there has to be a whole reckoning of the church, not just the Catholic Church, but the other churches and the Canadian government,” said Blackstock.
“It is not enough for the Canadian government to continue to say sorry.”
Calls to rescind the 1493 Papal Bulls
The first item of Blackstock’s “to do list” asks the Pope to publicly rescind the 1493 Papal Bulls “Inter Caetra” that gives effect to the Doctrine of Discovery “legalizing” colonialism worldwide.
Blackstock said although the Papal Bulls seem old, they have been cited in recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and “continue to filter up and support ongoing colonialism.”
The Doctrine of Discovery, which was based on the 1493 Papal Bulls, was used to justify the colonization of the Americas.
It is based on the idea that the lands being claimed were terra nullius—no man’s land, the TRC report stated.
According to the many TRC Calls to Action, governments should “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and to reform those laws, government policies, and litigation strategies that continue to rely on such concepts.”
It added that all religious denominations and faith groups should also renounce the doctrine.
In the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had the view that “to be civilized was to be Christian,” the TRC stated.
In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bulls, which then contributed to the the Doctrine of Discovery, to let Spain take over North and South America.
Steven Newcomb, a Shawnee-Lenape scholar and author, said ideas and arguments in the Vatican papal documents showed the patterns of colonization, domination and dehumanization of Indigenous peoples.
Newcomb co-founded the Indigenous Law Institute along with Birgil Kills Straight, who was a Traditional Headman and elder of the Oglala Lakota Nation. In 1992, they launched a campaign that has been calling upon the papacy to revoke the Papal Bulls.
Under this doctrine, Christian Europeans would assert a right of domination over the Indigenous nations and peoples because Indigenous Peoples were not baptized — Christian Europeans claimed to have superior claim to the soil, said Newcomb.
According to Newcomb, residential schools were an effort to destroy Indigenous languages and culture and spiritual traditions.
Newcomb said if the Vatican acknowledges the harms done “by quoting those documents” using their exact language, then there will be some “truth-telling” that is crucial to end the claim of right to domination.
“Because what we’re really trying to do is excavate those old patterns from the past and make the direct connection, looking at how those patterns of ideas, argumentation and those claims of domination continue to impact destructively on nations and peoples at this time,” he said.
“By discontinuing that assertion that (Christian Europeans) have a right of domination, we can begin to look at the correct way in which to have a relationship between the original nations and the state systems that are premised on the idea of domination.”
Blackstock called on the Church and the Holy See to release all documents related to the Papal Bulls, and said if they refuse, “the Canadian government needs to revoke their tax status and put different pressures on them to do so.”
The church needs 'a moral reckoning'
Niigaan Sinclair, Anishinaabe professor of Indigenous Studies at The University of Manitoba, said he would like to see the Catholic Church address three major issues as its next step in the process of truth and reconciliation, based on other TRC calls.
He said the Pope did not take “institutional responsibility” of the harm done to Indigenous peoples; instead, the Pope recognized “the genocide happened” and that “the church played a role within this the delivery of residential schools.”
Sinclair said the first thing he’d like to see is the legally-mandated compensation under the 2006 settlement agreement between the Canadian government and around 86,000 Indigenous peoples in Canada.
That year, 48 Catholic church entities signed on to fundraise $25 million for survivors under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, but the campaign raised less than $4 million, The Canadian Press previously reported.
“The Church has to fundraise for that ($25 million) amount to create healing funds for survivors, because that must be Indigenous led, not evangelical programs,” said Sinclair.
Sinclair said the second task he’d like to see on the Church’s agenda is to follow the direction of the Pope, in which he recognize the genocide took place.
The Church needs to release reports and documents of sexual abuse, physical abuse within the church in the history of the church itself, he said.
Lastly, the Church should begin to look at the issue of returning stolen land, said Sinclair.
Meanwhile, Blackstock said besides renouncing the 1493 Papal Bulls, the Church needs a “moral reckoning,” implementing measures that will hold those in power to account.
She is calling on the church to review its practices on sexual assault prevention and ensure all forms of abuse will not happen going forward.
“It needs to reform its practices to hold perpetrators accountable; to hold persons who covered up in favour of the church responsible; and to provide proper supports to survivors.”
Her to-do list also asked the church to ensure its teachings and practices do not infringe on the human rights and dignity of all Indigenous Peoples, including “women, girls, LGBTQ2S+ people and gender diverse persons.”
“It cannot say at one hand that we support all people, and then on the other hand start to be a part of a process that is a real division of those same values,” she said, adding that women and many from the LGBTQ2+ community are facing discrimination in churches.
“That’s the type of hypocrisy that the church needs to address.”
— with files from The Canadian Press