Indigenous leaders in Canada welcomed the apology of Pope Francis for the Catholic Church’s complicity in the “grave sins” of colonization, though they hoped it was just a prelude to further statements aimed directly at the deeds committed during the country’s residential schools era.
In his speech on July 9 during a three-country trip to South America, the Pontiff “humbly” asked for forgiveness for the “crimes against Native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
“This can be taken perhaps as an indication that maybe he will be open to complying with, accepting our recommendation, that he come to Canada and apologize specifically to survivors of residential schools and their families,” Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), told Yahoo Canada News. “Overall, I see it as a good sign.”
Sinclair was referring to the 150-year residential schools program, during which 150,000 Native children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture. In a report released on June 2, the TRC said the program amounted to “cultural genocide” and recommended that Pope Francis formally apologize to Indigenous Peoples in Canada, especially the 80,000 surviving former students.
“I think the specific experience of residential school survivors in Canada calls for a specific apology,” Sinclair told Yahoo Canada News.
"Pope Francis has shown real moral leadership with his apology and plea for forgiveness,” Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in a statement. “It's clear that the collective global movement of Indigenous Peoples is making change happen and can impact even the most powerful institutions.”
Bellegarde said he is pressing for a face-to-face meeting.
“I am seeking to meet with Pope Francis to personally urge him to make an apology here in Canada for the role of the Catholic Church in the suffering of Indian residential school survivors, consistent with the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Bellegarde said. “I will also seek a statement from the Pope renouncing the Papal Bulls that led to the racist Doctrine of Discovery used as a rationale to deprive Indigenous Peoples of the wealth of their lands and resources."
It’s not the first time a pope has apologized, though it is the most specific. In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI "offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity" to school survivors during a private audience with a delegation that included then AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine, elders and former students, CBC News reported at the time.
Pope Francis also earned praise for his stance on climate change, which links global warming and other environmental ills with social justice and indigenous rights. In his speech before indigenous and other grassroots groups in Bolivia, he denounced colonialism and noted not only is it alive and well, but also continues to arise in new guises.
“Let us say NO, then, to forms of colonialism old and new,” said the Pope. “Let us say YES to the encounter between peoples and cultures. Blessed are the peacemakers.”
"We fully agree with Pope Francis' comment that colonialism is still with us today and continues to foster inequality, poverty and an unhealthy relationship with Mother Earth,” Bellegarde said. “First Nations in Canada are very much a part of the global social movement that aims to dismantle the inequalities and environmental abuses that make up the new colonialism."
The apology met with some skepticism in the U.S., where controversy surrounds the Pope’s plan to canonize the Spanish missionary Junipero Serra.
But many, especially those who attended the speech in Bolivia, welcomed the sentiments the Pope expressed.
“We accept the apologies. What more can we expect from a man like Pope Francis?” said indigenous leader Adolfo Chavez, to the Associated Press. “It’s time to turn the page and pitch in to start anew. We indigenous were never lesser beings.”