Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
Around this time last year, Métis historian and educator Mitchell Case exited the grounds of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the holiest Catholic shrines in the world, after just having met Pope Francis.
In a news conference televised all over the world, wearing beadwork of his own design, and through tears, Case lauded the courage and persistence of Métis residential school survivors.
In many ways, for many years, he said at the time, they had never “been invited to say anything” about the horrors they endured or the trauma that ensued.
“I think the last year has been really empowering for Indigenous peoples,” Case told Global News in an interview on Thursday.
“Some really hardcore, dedicated survivors from Indigenous communities across Canada made this happen and I think that needs to be what we take from it — the power of what can be accomplished when we stand together and seek justice.”
On Thursday, the Vatican announced it has formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal framework based on 15th century papal bulls that gave early Christian explorers permission to conquer, displace and enslave non-Christian Indigenous Peoples.
Rescinding the doctrine was one of the calls of a historic delegation of Indigenous peoples to Rome last spring urging the Catholic Church to atone for its role in Canada’s harrowing residential school system.
This week’s update comes almost exactly a year to the day Pope Francis unexpectedly apologized for the grave and lasting harm caused by some clergy members who helped run the assimilation project, which spanned more than a century and took more than 150,000 children from their homes.
His apology garnered mixed reaction from members of the delegation who had pushed for it then, and from survivors who have been calling for that and more for decades.
For Elder Ernie Daniels, of the Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba, the Vatican’s rejection of the doctrine is evidence the Catholic Church has still not crossed the line from symbolic gestures to tangible action.
He said he’s pleased the Holy See recognizes the destructive impact of the papal bulls, but disappointed that its investment in Indigenous peoples has still not matched its investment in protecting its own priests and nuns from harm.
“Land back,” said Daniels, a knowledge keeper and former chief, in a Thursday interview.
“It is good to make the statement, but there’s lots of work to be done in terms of change of behaviour, change of attitudes, change of laws, change of policies by various governments of the world, as well as the corporate world, as well as the legal community … Words are cheap.”
Daniels has been forced into four residential schools in his lifetime: Portage la Prairie, Fort Alexander, Sandy Bay, and what he called a “seminary” in Otterburne, Man. His experiences there were “not good,” he said simply, but described himself as “resilient.”
“We internalized the pain and the hurt that we went through. We didn’t say very much, we kept it to ourselves,” he recalled.
“I didn’t let it destroy me, but it destroyed my language and my family life because we weren’t taught to be parents, we weren’t taught to love.”
As Canadians process the latest development on the Doctrine of Discovery, Daniels said he wanted to acknowledge the survivors who didn’t live to read the Vatican’s statement, including the authors, songwriters, and poets who have used their crafts to speak the truth for generations.
He said his mind also rests on Le Estcwéy̓, the missing children who never came home from residential schools, and whose bodies are suspected of being buried — possibly in the thousands — on former school grounds across the country.
Le Estcwéy̓ have consumed the life of Kúkpi7 Rosanne Casimir from the moment Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc detected more than 200 suspected unmarked burial sites by the former Kamloops Indian Residential School nearly two years ago.
The world shifted when her nation shared its findings on May 27, 2021, and in the months that followed, First Nations across the country announced similar discoveries through ground-penetrating radar sweeps.
By the end of that year, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops had confirmed an Indigenous delegation would meet Pope Francis in the Vatican, announced $30 million of support for healing and reconciliation programs, and expressed its “profound remorse” for residential schools.
Pope Francis visited Canada on a reconciliatory pilgrimage last summer as well, after which he labelled residential schools a “genocide.”
Casimir, who also went to Rome last spring, said the Vatican’s rejection of the doctrine is “very long overdue” and its “ripple effects” must be broad across all levels of government and the public.
“It will be very interesting to see how the federal government is going to act and react, and what their role will also be to denounce the doctrine and what that’s going to include,” she told Global News.
“We have to see the true solidarity and unity of all levels to be able to do the right thing.”
The bishops’ conference did not respond to a request for comment by deadline on Thursday.
With support from the federal government, the Catholic Church operated nearly three-quarters of Canada’s residential schools, seizing more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes between the 1830s and mid-1990s. Countless thousands were subjected to gratuitous physical, sexual and spiritual violence by priests and nuns.
Many children were also starved in scientific experiments on malnutrition.
While many have lauded Pope Francis’ efforts to atone in the past year, some Indigenous survivors and advocates have suggested his, and the Vatican’s, statements fall short of true accountability for the church’s orchestrating role in residential schools.
Thursday’s statement points to “governmental authorities” as promotors of “policies of forced assimilation” without acknowledging the Catholic Church’s own institutional part. It also says the papal bulls commonly linked to the doctrine were “manipulated for political purposes” and were not part of the teachings of the church, although they failed to adequately “respect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples.”
“In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being,” the Holy See Press Office wrote.
“The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.'”
The statement offered no evidence that the three papal bulls in question had themselves been formally rescinded, but cited a subsequent bull in 1537 that reaffirmed Indigenous peoples shouldn’t be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property.
Assembly of First Nations Manitoba Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse said she would like to see Pope Francis speak to the Doctrine of Discovery himself, when is fully recovered from the infection that has recently hospitalized him.
Woodhouse, a day school survivor, billed Thursday’s news as a “step in the right direction” that requires a more “forthright” conversation in the days and weeks to come.
“I believe Pope Francis has the will to speak the truth more directly and in a less defensive manner,” she said, after having taken part both in the delegation to Rome and subsequent papal tour in Canada.
“I imagine there are many pressures on him from various regressive forces in the Vatican. If the truth of the church role in colonialism is not acknowledged fully and in a straightforward manner, it will be hard to move forward … but we have to try and work together. Getting rid of some of that racism is a start.”
When Case was in Rome last spring, he beaded the moccasins gifted to Pope Francis on behalf of the Métis survivors, elders, leaders, and youth who formed part of the delegation.
While Thursday’s news may not be everything he hoped for, the Region 4 Regional Councillor for the Métis Nation of Ontario said it’s still worth celebrating as a victory won by residential school survivors and Indigenous leaders over decades.
“It’s not yet, but it could be the start of a philosophical shift in Western society,” Case said, sporting a newly beaded vest he’s still trying to finish.
“There is a fundamental power imbalance between European and Christian powers and Indigenous peoples. I think today, while they haven’t rescinded those papal bulls — they’ve repudiated them, I guess — maybe that begins a conversation about the fundamental underpinnings of Western society and its relationship with Indigenous peoples and Indigenous lands.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers culturally competent counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous peoples experiencing trauma, distress, strong emotions and painful memories. The line can be reached anytime toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.