SASKATOON — Two documents released March 29 will not be the last of the Catholic Church’s responses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the TRC Calls to Action, says Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon.
“The bishops look at this as a long and ongoing process. I think we see the TRC Calls to Action as an invitation to engagement, so we are not simply checking things off a list; we are looking for ways to be engaged,” said Bolen.
The two documents were published in response to TRC Calls to Action #46, #48 and #49. Leaders of four Canadian Catholic organizations representing bishops, institutes of consecrated life, indigenous people, and other laity signed the documents on the Feast of St. Joseph (patron saint of Canada). The texts were prepared after a rigorous process of drafting, discussion and consultation, led by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Justice and Peace, chaired by Bolen.
The Truth and Reconciliation process that has taken place around the legacy of residential schools has invited a “deep awakening” from Catholics and from all Canadians, Bolen said.
“Catholics have learned much more about our culpability in a very flawed Indian residential school system,” he said, noting that some 60 per cent of the government-mandated schools were run by Catholic entities.
“Through the TRC process we have heard more clearly than ever before how indigenous children were taken from their homes, often far from their homes, sometimes forcibly. We have heard terrible accounts of sexual abuse and physical abuse, and also of spiritual or cultural abuse. The way in which the whole residential school system was geared toward assimilation has been revealed. We also have a new understanding of how the legacy of the schools continues to have an impact on individuals, families and communities, and is connected to many of the challenges faced by indigenous people in our country today,” Bolen said.
“I am grateful that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission does not write the churches off. Instead, they call us to integrity. They call us to own the sins and mistakes of our past and to conversion. They call us to action, to stand in solidarity with indigenous people, to address wrongs.”
The first of the two texts “considers and repudiates illegitimate concepts and principles used by Europeans to justify the seizure of land previously held by indigenous peoples and often identified by the terms Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.”
The document notes “that now is an appropriate time to issue a public statement in response to the errors and falsehoods perpetuated, often by Christians, during and following the so-called Age of Discovery,” and rejects how these legal constructs have been used to disenfranchise indigenous peoples.
In the second document, the signatories express their support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They affirm that “its spirit can point a way forward to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada.”
The Catholic response to TRC Call to Action #48 to support the UN Declaration concludes with an “appeal to all our Catholic brothers and sisters” to undertake eight commitments as a way to “continue to walk together with indigenous peoples in building a more just society where their gifts and those of all people are nurtured and honoured.”
Those Walking Forward Together commitments include actions around education; learning to tell the history of Canada in a truthful and complete way; promoting and supporting indigenous reflection and dialogue; encouraging partnerships between indigenous groups and health care facilities; strengthening a restorative justice model in the criminal justice system; and supporting the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. The commitments also call for Canadian Catholic organizations and individuals to broaden and deepen relationships and collaboration with indigenous peoples in moving forward on the TRC Calls to Action, as well as inviting a greater familiarity with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples, to foster reflection on how aspects of the declaration can be implemented.
This is not the first time the Vatican and the church have responded positively to the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples, noted Bolen.
“Many of the rights identified in that document find an echo in Catholic social teaching: these are rights that every human being, every cultural or linguistic group, and every community should have,” he said. “This includes the right to education, the right to their own cultural practices and spiritual traditions, the right to land, economic development, and so on.”
In addition to affirming the UN Declaration, the document acknowledges the failures of the church: “Although many priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople served in the residential schools with generosity, faithfulness, care, and respect for their students, this was not always the case. The TRC Final Report rightly observes that when Christians, through the residential schools, belittled indigenous students as ‘pagans’ or ‘demonized, punished, and terrorized them into accepting Christian beliefs,’ this was in fundamental contradiction to the core beliefs of Christianity. While Christians have at times failed to live up to the standard to which they are called by God, the glaring failures to respect the identity and freedom of indigenous children outlined in the TRC Final Report are particularly saddening and must never be repeated.”
Bolen noted that, since the TRC national event held in Saskatoon four years ago, the diocese has established a Diocesan Council for Truth and Reconciliation in which indigenous and non-indigenous representatives strive to discern what issues need to be addressed and pursued together. “For instance, we are supporting a Cree language program in one of our churches, we are working with our indigenous community in terms of integrating indigenous spiritual practices and initiatives into celebrations and communities. We also worked with a number of Christian churches on an event about missing and murdered Aboriginal women.”
During the TRC process and at all the major national TRC events, Catholic bishops were present and offered apologies, which were well received, Bolen said. “But it is not enough simply to apologize. Reconciliation calls for more. I think there is a real readiness to engage not only with the Calls to Action, but to walk in solidarity in a new way with indigenous peoples.”
One of the other much-publicized TRC Calls to Action, #58, is to have Pope Francis come to Canada to meet with indigenous people and to apologize in person for the “church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools” (see related story).
In conversation with indigenous people, Bolen said he has come to a deeper understanding of the reasons behind this request, and believes it would bring about a deep level of healing that can’t happen any other way. “One indigenous friend explained: ‘It’s not that we think the pope is personally responsible for everything that went wrong in residential schools, but we understand from our sense of family, that when one person in a family does something wrong, the whole family needs to be involved in reconciliation — and we understand Pope Francis to be the father of your family.’ I find that argument very powerful.”
Bolen said that Pope Francis has been informed of the TRC request. “I am sure the Holy Father is going to take it very seriously. That being said, I am sure that he has received dozens if not hundreds of invitations, and every one of them has its own integrity. And so we wait and see.”
Noting that the pope apologized to indigenous peoples in the Americas while visiting Bolivia, as well as on a recent visit to Mexico, Bolen added, “I think the Holy Father’s heart is always open to and attentive to people in need, and he is looking to redress the wrongs that Catholics have engaged in in the past. I think his heart would be with this suggestion, but, at the same time, I can’t imagine what his schedule is like. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful.”
In the meantime, Bolen said he would encourage every Catholic, and every Canadian, to read the TRC Final Report. “We are called to deal with that history now,” he said. “It’s an invitation to change, an invitation to a deeper engagement. I believe the Holy Spirit is in this process and in this invitation to us as church.”