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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn


Divisions among bishops puts an apology on hold

Once upon a time, when we arrived here, we simply took their land. Then, starting over 150 years ago, we took their children. In 2018, we’re taking away the hope of sincere reconciliation.

In 2015 Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued its final report on Indian residential schools, relating the “cultural genocide” that took place, along with much physical and sexual abuse. Looking to the future, 94 Calls to Action were recommended. Some of them were specifically directed to the four churches that ran the schools. But all challenged the members of every faith community, all governments, and the entire Canadian public. Reconciliation must involve us all.

It’s not at all clear, unfortunately, that all the Canadian Catholic bishops get that. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced two days before Good Friday that the pope will not now come to Canada to offer an apology to indigenous peoples for residential schools. This news has caused more pain to Aboriginal people, deeply saddening those with whom I have talked who remain in the church.

Call to Action #58 is worth quoting in its entirety:

“We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a private audience with Pope Francis in May 2017,
he directly invited the pontiff to come to Canada and issue such an apology.

Just before Easter 2018, culminating a lenten season where the faithful have been encouraged to examine our consciences, confess our sins and do penance, it seems the Catholic bishops of Canada have been unable to do the same.

To be clear, the CCCB’s March 27 “letter to Indigenous Peoples in Canada” reported that Pope Francis “felt he could not personally respond” after careful consideration of the Canadian invitations. Having worked 11 years at the CCCB myself, I recognize this as code language. The plain truth is that the Catholic bishops will not admit they are divided. They could not agree to issue an invitation to their pope.

Francis is not a “top-down” hierarch. This is a man who, had he been invited, would have come. (Francis issued a public apology to the indigenous peoples of the Americas in Bolivia in 2015.) But he will never agree to arrive on Canadian soil, or issue an apology to indigenous people here, without the express invitation and agreement of the bishops of Canada.

Not all bishops wanted the pontiff to stay away. In 2017, the bishops of Saskatchewan expressed support for the visit of Pope Francis to Canada. Archbishop Murray Chatlain, who heads the CCCB’s Guadalupe Circle, said, “We hope that the Holy Father, coming and meeting with Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis representatives from all of Canada, where he may express an apology and could communicate the whole church’s commitment to be in real dialogue with each other, would be a great blessing.”

There was understandable negative fallout from the bishops’ decision.

The prime minister expressed his disappointment with this news. Indigenous leaders like Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he would continue to extend an invitation to the pope, while others expressed sentiments ranging from outrage to deep pain.

Senator Murray Sinclair, who led the TRC, remarked that, “The Anglican Church has apologized, the United Church has issued an apology, the Presbyterians have issued an apology. But we’ve heard nothing of that sort from the Catholics.” The senator wondered if the fear of litigation is still the major concern of Catholic bishops. “Also, I believe there is a strong element within the church leadership that residential school survivors are not telling the truth.”

Sinclair’s frustration was echoed on his Facebook page in stark language: “The shame of those who abused children in their institutions in the past is now theirs to wear.”

I belong to an Oblate parish in Ottawa where reconciliation with indigenous people has become a priority. We have organized a half-dozen events in the past two years, and work directly in partnership with Aboriginal ministry leaders of the Archdiocese of Ottawa. Our last event, where we expected 30 - 40 people, attracted over 90 persons. Now our meetings are attended by representatives from five parishes.

Yet, unlike our friends and collaborators in Protestant churches, we have no idea what the reconciliation plan for our church is (if any) on the national or diocesan levels. The CCCB initiative to convene the Guadalupe Circle remains a work in progress, still working on membership and terms of reference.

KAIROS — Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives — has a vibrant program of indigenous reconciliation, but the Catholic bishops abandoned this ecumenical organization in late 2015.

“Listening circles” (attended by local bishops) have been held or are planned in several places (Thompson, Winnipeg, Moosonee, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Trois Rivières, Halifax, Victoria, and Churchill) in preparation for a pastoral letter on Aboriginal issues, for release by the CCCB this autumn. (The intent of the statement, anything about the content, or how laity might be able to use it has not been publicly released.)

Our local reconciliation efforts, while sincere, cannot replace the need for the Catholic leadership to play their roles in designing educational efforts among our youth and directly inside our parishes and Catholic institutions.

Pope Francis could eventually come and might even apologize for our church’s role in running the majority of Canada’s residential schools. In the meantime, Canadian Catholics must increase our active efforts to reconcile with indigenous peoples. Words are not enough, and leadership alone will not suffice. But unfortunately, this week, the grassroots reconciliation efforts of Catholics with indigenous peoples just got a whole lot harder.

Gunn is the author of the forthcoming book, Journeys to Justice, and serves as the executive director of Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ),, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.