A member of the National Indian Residential School Circle of Survivors says it’s good Pope Francis acknowledged that what happened in the schools amounted to genocide, but that he should have said it before he left Canada.
Ken Young, who is the former Manitoba regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says he believes the Pope failed to make the acknowledgment during his Canadian visit last week because Canadian Catholic officials failed to brief him properly.
Francis apologized multiple times throughout the week for abuses of Catholic-run residential schools, but didn’t use the word “genocide” until he was asked by reporters on his plane back to Rome if he accepted that members of the church participated in genocide.
Francis said the reason he did not say that on his apology visit was because he felt “genocide” was a technical term.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission referred to residential schools as a form of cultural genocide when it released its final report in 2015, and since then, a number of Indigenous groups have amended this to say it was genocide.
Young says he believes Francis, when at the end of the Canadian visit, was free to express his own point of view.
“It’s good that he said it … but he should have said it when he was talking to people here in Canada, and in particular the First Nation survivors of Indian residential schools, and of course the Metis and Inuit,” Young said in a phone interview Monday in Winnipeg.
“I understood what he meant and why he said it. A lot of people would be surprised because a lot of people don’t appreciate and understand what genocide means within the meaning of the UN convention.”
Kenneth Deer, a member of the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake, near Montreal, and a member of the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee, said he felt the statement from the Pope aboard the papal plane was likely an accurate indication of what he feels.
“I thought his statement was amazing, I’m glad he said it. I wish he’d said it while he was in Canada instead of over the ocean,” Deer said.
“I think what you heard from the Pope at that time is what he really feels because he was talking off the cuff; all the other statements were prepared statements.”
Last year, after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia said ground-penetrating radar detected what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school in Kamloops, Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) law professor Pamela Palmater said the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide applies to Canada’s actions.
She said the convention states that a genocide is committed when members of a group are killed, subjected to serious physical or mental harm, put in conditions to destroy them, become victims to measures intended to prevent births or have their children forcibly transferred to another group.
Guelph University professor David MacDonald said at the time that the forcible transfer of children, which is part of the UN convention, occurred in the system of residential schools in Canada.
Deer said the Pope’s acknowledgment is important given many people were arguing against the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the residential schools were a cultural genocide.
“But now we have the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, saying yes it’s a genocide, so that’s why it’s very important,” Deer said.
Young, meanwhile, said he doesn’t think there’s a difference between “genocide” and “cultural genocide.”
“It’s either genocide or it’s no genocide,” Young said. “That’s the way I see it. It’s kind of black or white, I guess, but that’s my view.”