OTTAWA (CCN) — The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) holds out hope the pope will come to Canada to apologize for Indian residential schools, despite news Pope Francis has decided not to.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he will ask for a face-to-face meeting with Pope Francis so he can impress upon him the importance of this apology to bring about healing and reconciliation. He will also ask the pope to renounce the Doctrines of Discovery and terra nullius that were used to justify the colonization of indigenous lands.
“He’s a world leader,” Bellegarde said. “People watch and listen and he has much impact. He’s a very holy man.”
“He’s a very special man, and for him to show that strong leadership on those two requests, I think would be a strong act of healing and strong act of reconciliation going forward,” he said.
Though initially disappointed to learn of the pope’s decision not to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Call to Action #58 that he apologize on Canadian soil for the Catholic Church’s role in the schools, he noted word of Pope Francis’ decision comes in a letter from the Catholic bishops of Canada and “not directly from the pope.”
“I will continue to urge Pope Francis to come to our homelands as per TRC Call to Action #58 to meet with the peoples, with survivors and their children of the residential school system, because that in itself would be an act of healing,” he said.
News of Pope Francis’ decision came in a March 27 letter to the indigenous peoples of Canada from Bishop Lionel Gendron, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. It stressed the bishops’ commitment to reconciliation and the pope’s encouragement that the bishops continue reaching out in “intensive pastoral work” to further healing and working to improve the conditions of First Nations peoples.
Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg said the pope has been involved in “considerable dialogue over the last number of months,” concerning the TRC.
“He knows about the TRC, he knows the findings,” said Gagnon, whom the CCCB put forward to speak to English-language journalists. “He has a great interest in this and he takes it very seriously, but he doesn’t feel he could personally respond to this particular Call to action #58.”
“His feeling is that reconciliation is most effectively achieved at the local level,” he said. “A lot has been done but a lot more remains to be done. That is the way the Holy Father looks at the situation.”
He noted the pope is not ruling out a visit in the future.
“There is always a temptation to look at the Calls to Action generally like a checklist you check off,” said Gagnon. “We look at the Calls to Action as an invitation to engagement with First Nations people and the Holy Father.”
“He has as said he is open to coming to Canada and top on his priorities would be a meeting with indigenous people,” he said, noting this was one of the main priorities of St. John Paul II’s visits to Canada.
Bellegarde welcomed continued efforts by the bishops, noting “acts of reconciliation can happen at the local level between our communities and the church,” but added, “it would be a powerful act of healing and reconciliation for the pope to apologize, so we’re going to keep pushing on that request and that endeavour.”
Bellegarde noted the pope apologized in Bolivia to indigenous people there and in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI apologized to the Irish people for sexual abuse by priests. While Pope Benedict XVI had also expressed sorrow to former AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine and other First Nations leaders and residential school survivors at a meeting in the Vatican in 2009, Bellegarde said he hopes Pope Francis will build on what Pope Benedict did by apologizing in Canada.
“I think in some ways the indigenous peoples have to develop a more assertive approach to connecting with the Vatican,” said Harry Lafond, a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and of the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council. “I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere without direct dialogue between the pope and indigenous people, whether it’s this year, next year or the year after, I think it has to happen.”
“I’m disappointed but I’m still hopeful,” he said. “I am afraid for the relationship.”
Though he’s aware there is some positive growth in some parts of the country in relationship-building between indigenous communities and the church, in his area of Saskatchewan, the opposite is happening.
“The young people are not interested in any serious way to engage with the Catholic Church,” he said.
“I don’t see enough at this point of concrete action happening to make a difference. I think some of the bishops are really trying hard to come up with strategies and ways, but if the young people are not responding, it’s a pretty one-sided journey at this level.”
Lafond thinks the pope’s apology and presence on Canadian soil is needed to make those efforts mutual.
“I believe the door is still open,” said Deacon Rennie Nahanee, a Squamish elder who works in the Vancouver archdiocese’s Office of Ministries and Outreach.
Nahanee said a papal apology here “would have moved more Canadians to understand about our colonial history here in Canada.”
“I think it would have swayed them to be more understanding of our indigenous peoples and our colonial history.”
In the meantime, Nahanee said he looks forward to seeing indigenous peoples “talking to the bishops, telling them about their reality.
“Though it’s different throughout the country — each area has its special problems — I think with the bishops and the priests, I believe we can have a new relationship and that’s a good thing.”