Canadian society, and Canada’s historical Christian churches in particular, have been rocked by the legacy of Indian residential schools. While much of the hard work of reconciliation is left to be done, a deadline for Catholic action is looming this month.
Released last June, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Call to Action #48 asked faith groups “to formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms and standards of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework for reconciliation.” Beyond this, churches were challenged to issue a statement no later than March 31, 2016, “as to how they will implement the UNDRIP.” As well, religious denominations were also challenged (along with the federal government) to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.”
To respond, the Canadian bishops called some religious orders to join them in a March 14 meeting in an Ottawa hotel, where two statements, one on the church’s support for the UNDRIP, and the other dealing with the Doctrine of Discovery, were agreed upon. The issues are thorny, especially should the church appear more defensive of the past than willing to change in the present.
The current president of the bishops’ conference, Hamilton’s Doug Crosby, has experienced these dilemmas personally, as leader of the Canadian Oblates when they apologized for their role in residential schools in 1991. Also, in Rome in 2009, Archbishop James Weisgerber and Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine heard Benedict XVI express his “sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church.” And in July 2015 in Bolivia, Pope Francis referred to the largest known genocide in human history, where 60 million indigenous people perished in the Americas after their “discovery.” Francis admitted, “with regret; many grave sins were created against the native peoples of America in the name of God . . . I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offences of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
The Doctrine of Discovery emanated from three papal bulls in the 15th century. It permitted Christians to confiscate all land and possessions of the inhabitants of “barbarous nations” they discovered. The doctrine became a legal concept in the U.S. by the 1820s.
Since 2013, over a dozen congregations of Catholic religious, organized by the Loretto Sisters, have been calling for the doctrine to be revoked by the Holy See. For its part, a Vatican representative to the UN stated in 2010 that it had already been “abrogated” and was “without any legal or doctrinal value.” It seems the TRC commissioners didn’t get the memo.
Several other churches have moved to clearly renounce the Doctrine of Discovery — the Anglican, United, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran churches of Canada, and the Christian Reformed Church of North America, for example. If there is a broad difference between the Roman Catholic statement this month, and those previous statements and work of other churches, the press can be expected to pillory the Catholic side.
Reconciliation is hard, ongoing work. Erica Lee, a young indigenous woman from Saskatchewan, has written that, “The real task of reconciliation, however, is not Canada waiting around to be forgiven for colonialism so business can carry on as usual; it is for Canadians to end the ongoing colonial violence that still suffocates indigenous lives . . . reconciliation is about indigenous liberation.”
Catholic clergy are familiar with the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, which presents three requirements of forgiveness: to regret the harm done, to make amends, and to have the firm intention to not do it again.
The most important commitment our leaders could make this month would be to adopt the TRC’s #59. That calls upon the church to “develop ongoing education strategies to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families, and communities were necessary.” Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians reminds us that all believers have been given the “ministry of reconciliation.” Catholics need to get reconciling at the level of where our people are — our parishes.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.