For more than a century, the Canadian government was responsible for perpetuating horrendous abuses against native peoples who were unfortunate enough to be living in an area where a imperial colonialist power decided to set up shop. It was government policy for Indigenous children to be separated from their families, the without the permission of their parents or tribal elders, and them into what were known as residential schools: institutions predominantly run by the Catholic Church, along with a small handful of schools that were handled by Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church interests.
Once the kids were secured into these boarding schools, they were taught the 'right' way to live--right being in accordance to western culture. Were the incarcerated children to dare to speak their own language or act according to cultural norms outside of what their white caretakers felt was 'civilized,' they were met with severe corporal punishment. Mortality rates at the schools were high. So were instances of physical and emotional abuse. Children were often buried in unmarked graves or simply disappeared. Even after the last residential school closed in 1998, its legacy of hate and abuse remains.
In 2015, Canada finally confessed to its part in this long-running crime. The nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission looked to the crimes of the residential school system, saying that they amounted to cultural genocide. The commission made 94 recommendations that it felt would go along ways towards righting the wrongs of the past. One those recommendations was that the Pope step forward and apologize for his church's role in the residential school system. It makes sense: the bulk of the schools were operated by the Catholic Church. There's precedent for it, too: in the past, Popes have apologized for other shitty things that the church has done.
Last May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a personal appeal to Pope Francis, asking him for an apology, on behalf of all Canadians. The pope's response?
From the New York Times:
“The Holy Father is aware of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he takes seriously,” Bishop Lionel Gendron, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in an open letter to Canada’s Indigenous people released on Tuesday. “After carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the Bishops of Canada, he felt that he could not personally respond.”
It wouldn't have been the first time that a pope's apologized for the church's bullshit. As the New York Times points out, Pope Benedict XVI apologized for the decades of sexual abuse that many Catholic priests heaped on members of their flock in Ireland, back in 2010. More recently, Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the church's role in the Rwandan genocide. Thousands were killed during that one. Maybe the problem with apologizing for what went on in the residential schools is that around 80,000 people who were forced to attend them are still alive. Admitting culpability through apology could open the doors to one hell of a class action lawsuit against the Church.
The Pope's got a trip to Canada planned in the near future. Apparently, meeting with native politicians and tribal elders will be a priority. I guess we'll see what happens.
Image via Wikipedia Commons