Papal apology: like seeing fresh moose tracks

fresh moose tracks

Like walking through the snow and seeing fresh moose tracks.

This is National Chief, Gerald Antoine’s description of Pope Francis’ apology for the part the Catholic Church played in Canada’s residential school system.

“That is the feeling that I have, because there is a possibility,” he said moments after the apology.

“Today is a day that we’ve been waiting for and certainly one that will be uplifted in our history,” said Antoine.

His comments came following a delegation of indigenous tribes – First Nations, Inuit and Métis – to the Vatican.

Another leader, Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit, said that people will have different perspectives of the apology, but “Today we have a piece of the puzzle.

“We have a heartfelt expression from the church that was delivered by Pope Francis in an empathetic and caring way.

“I was touched by the way in which he expressed his sorrow and also the way in which he condemned the actions of the Church in particular,” Obed said.

Former national chief, Phil Fontaine, who first gave attention to the matter in 1990, says he hoped the long-sought apology would come.

However, Fontaine says he was shocked when he heard the Pope say: “I am very sorry.”


The jubilation was felt early on by the wider group.

The indigenous delegation strongly felt the enormity of what they were up against going to Rome, writes Tanya Talaga, an Anishinaabe journalist for Canada’s Globe and Mail.

“This has been a CCCB (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops) controlled trip and, at times, it has felt like an organised pilgrimage, complete with Mass being offered every day at 6pm in the hotel basement.

“But this delegation is well aware of what it is up against.

“On Monday, the Métis delegation went rogue after their meeting with the Pontiff, the first of four private audiences.

“Instead of getting back on the idling church buses, they paraded through St Peter’s Square, led by youth fiddlers.

“It was a sight to behold. Their red sashes swayed as they sashayed out of the Vatican.

“One elder even danced in her wheelchair,” she wrote.

The apology

The apology came on Saturday (NZ time) after a week of talks with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations in Rome.

“I feel shame – sorrow and shame – for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values” said the pope.

“All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry.

“And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.

“Clearly, the content of the faith cannot be transmitted in a way contrary to the faith itself: Jesus taught us to welcome, love, serve and not judge; it is a frightening thing when, precisely in the name of the faith, counter-witness is rendered to the Gospel.”

Apology’s context

An estimated 150,000 indigenous children were forced to attend Canadian Government-built residential schools to assimilate themselves into the Canadian society to deal with what was once called the “Indian problem”.

The system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their indigenous heritage and culture or to speak their own languages.

Former students tell of extensive and systemic abuse — physical and sexual — at the hands of authorities within the system. Indigenous leaders have termed the residential schools’ system a “cultural genocide”.

At least 4,100 deaths – due mainly to tuberculosis caused by deplorable living conditions – have been documented at the former residential schools where thousands of confirmed and unmarked graves have been found.

The State schools were run by the United, Presbyterian, Anglican and Catholic churches. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

The State and the other churches have already apologised, however former mayor of Kamloops and retired newspaper editor Mel Rothenburger says all aspects of Canadian society have a role to play in what happens next.

“Let’s not forget residential schools were built by the Canadian government. The Catholic and Anglican churches were, in effect, the contractors who ran them. All aspects of Canadian society have a role to play in what happens now. That includes the media, which need to shed biases and assumptions and lead responsibly.”

Francis to visit Canada

During the apology, Francis said he would like to visit Canada this year around the feast of St Anne, mother of Mary.

“This year, I would like to be with you on that day,” Francis said.

“I won’t come in the winter!” he joked, drawing laughs.

Canadian government

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country’s history “will forever be stained” by the legacy of the schools and that he was looking forward to the papal visit.

“Today’s apology is a step forward in acknowledging the truth of our past.

“We cannot separate the legacy of the residential school system from the institutions that created, maintained, and operated it, including the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church,” he said in a statement.

For Chief Gerald Antoine, a key remaining concern is a formal recognition by the Canadian government that the residential schools were part of a systemic attempt at “cultural genocide” or, as he explained it, an attempt “to kill the Indian in the child” and force them to assimilate.




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