Pope Francis has formally apologized to the indigenous peoples of Canada for the atrocities committed upon them by the Catholic Church in the 19th and 20th century.
Last year, the remains of hundreds of indigenous children were discovered in an unmarked mass grave at the site of a former Catholic school in Canada – a shocking revelation that shook the country and the Catholic world.
It also confirmed unspeakable evils that First Nations advocates long suspected.
Where Did the Kids Go?
From a roughly 120 year period spanning the 1870s to the 1990s, Canada’s residential school system engaged in what Canada itself now recognizes as “cultural genocide” against indigenous children.
Canada sent 150,000 indigenous children to these residential schools – which were largely run by Catholic missionaries – to ‘assimilate’ them into white Canadian culture and ‘Christianize’ them.
The schools were well-known as a place where children simply disappeared. Many went off to school, never to return to their families.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found that between 4,100 and 6,000 children died of abuse, and untold thousands more suffered sexual trauma, violent beatings, and were underfed and malnourished.
It’s a shameful part of Canada’s past that is only now getting a major spotlight, and the Catholic Church had no small part in it. After all, nearly three-quarters of these schools were Catholic-run.
A Formal Apology
During a recent audience with dozens of Inuit, Métis and First Nations representatives, Pope Francis issued a papal apology and begged forgiveness.
“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness of the Lord,” Pope Francis told the representatives. “And I want to tell you from my heart, that I am greatly pained. And I unite myself with the Canadian bishops in apologizing.”
Addressing indigenous representatives directly, Francis stated that he felt great shame for the Church’s role in “the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.”
It is believed this is the first time Pope Francis has apologized for the Church’s role in the atrocities. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally called on the pontiff to issue an apology all the way back in 2017, but the Catholic Church has largely been hesitant to acknowledge their major role in the residential school system.
With this formal apology, activists say that now the healing can begin. “I sincerely believe that people now have an opportunity to forgive,” said former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine. “But forgiveness is just as difficult as to apologize.”
However, many argue this should only be the beginning of the Church’s atonement.
Does ‘Sorry’ Cut It?
Not everyone believes that a simple “we’re sorry” is enough. Some indigenous leaders are demanding reparations from the Catholic Church to help make things right.
As part of a 2006 settlement, the Catholic Church agreed to raise $25 million to help make things right. But the Church fell far short of its goal, only managing to raise $3.7 million.
Now, with a formal apology from the Pope on the books, many say it’s time for the Vatican to finally pay up.
Natan Obed, one of the leaders of the Inuit delegation, balked at the previous fundraising efforts. “We are a bit incredulous to think that an entity with so many land holdings, and such vast assets, is unable to identify $25-million for the hundred-plus years of human-rights abuses perpetrated against Indigenous children,” he stated. “It doesn’t compute when you see the Catholic Church’s current footprint and sustainability in this country.”
Some were also upset that the Catholic Church relied on fundraising efforts, instead of simply paying outright. “The Vatican is a state that holds a lot of wealth. [Fundraising] plays a role in reconciliation, but there’s a larger role for the Vatican itself to play,” said Cassidoy Caron, head of the Métis delegation.
A 2019 investigation found that the Catholic Church’s net assets in Canada totalled at least $4.1 billion. Surely, activists argue, they can scrape together $25 million to help make things right.
Are Reparations Right?
However, some disagree with the notion of financial restitution for past sins. Reparations are a controversial topic; calls for official reparations for descendants of slaves in the United States have long gone unanswered. The chances of official slavery reparations from the United States government appear so remote to some churches that they've begun offering their own reparations to African-Americans.
Still, the residential school system in Canada is a bit different. Residential schools were operating as late as the 1990s, and victims of those schools are still alive today. These aren’t centuries-old atrocities… the wounds are pretty fresh. An apology is nice, but many say that should be just the beginning.
What do you think? Now that they’ve officially apologized, is it time for the Catholic Church to pay up?