CANADA: ‘The Pope didn’t deliver a clear apology to Indigenous people on behalf of the Catholic Church’

Virginie LadischCIVICUS speaks with Virginie Ladisch of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) about the recent apology of Pope Francis to Canadian Indigenous peoples and the legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

ICTJ is a civil society organisation (CSO) working in partnership with victims and survivors to obtain acknowledgment and redress for massive human rights violations, hold those responsible to account, reform and build democratic institutions and prevent the recurrence of violence and repression.

What human rights violations committed against Indigenous people did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reveal?

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada very clearly details the human rights violations and cultural genocide that resulted from the ‘Indian residential school’ system, which was the focus of the recent apology by Pope Francis.

The Indian residential schools and the abuses that occurred at them are among many other human rights violations suffered by Indigenous people in Canada, which include sexual and gender-based violations against Indigenous women and girls, land dispossession, violation of the right to safe drinking water, disproportionate rates of incarceration, excessive use of force against land rights protesters, discriminatory practices and lack of access to basic services, including healthcare.

How significant is the Pope's apology?

The Pope’s apology is a significant first step in the journey to acknowledge and repair past wrongs. In his apology, the Pope acknowledged the assimilationist intent of the residential school system and the harm it caused by systematically marginalising Indigenous people, denigrating and suppressing their languages and cultures, taking young children away from their homes, indelibly affecting their relationship with their parents and grandparents and subjecting them to physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse.

The last residential schools closed in the 1990s, so it was important for him to acknowledge the intergenerational harm caused, which persists to this day. However, several survivors noted with disappointment his omission of sexual abuse – rampant in Indian residential schools – which continues to have detrimental impacts on survivors and their families.

While the Pope highlighted the systematic nature of harm perpetrated against Canadian Indigenous people, his apology stopped short of naming the Catholic Church’s role as part of a system intended to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. He said: ‘I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools’.

The Pope’s words reflect a personal apology and an apology on behalf of individual Catholics, but not a clear apology on behalf of the Catholic Church as an institution. Since the Pope represents the Catholic Church, it is possible to interpret this personal apology as an apology on behalf of the Church. However, given the deeply embedded systemic nature of the violations committed by the Catholic Church against Indigenous people, it is necessary to clearly acknowledge that the system was at fault and that there was a concerted institutional effort to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children. This was not the work of a few misguided individuals.

There needs to be a concerted effort to unravel the colonialist ideas that underpinned the residential school system and are at the root of persistent racism today.

What next steps should the Catholic Church and the Canadian government take?

ICTJ recognises apologies as an important part of a transitional justice process because of their significant moral and symbolic value. But to be meaningful, they need to be followed by real action and material reparations. The Pope acknowledged this in his apology and noted that ‘a serious investigation into the facts’ and efforts ‘to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered’ would be key to prevent such situations happening again. Ultimately, the significance of the Pope’s apology will depend on how he leads the Catholic Church in turning those words into action.

In terms of next steps, the Catholic Church and the Government of Canada should follow the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which address the lasting harms of residential schools and call on all sectors of society to invest in new and respectful ways of moving forward together. Where more information is needed, for example around missing children and unmarked graves, the Catholic Church should open its archives and undertake a rigorous investigation.

How is ICTJ working to advance the rights of Indigenous people?

ICTJ works side by side with victims and survivors in their quest for justice and helps ensure they have a say in the policies that affect them. We raise awareness about their rights and support efforts to hold perpetrators accountable, uncover the truth about the violations they and their communities suffered and obtain acknowledgment and redress.

We also partner with civil society groups, including women’s, youth and minority groups, that have a stake in building a more just, peaceful and democratic society. Together, we press forward the institutional reforms and guarantees necessary to prevent the violations from happening again.

Over the past three decades, transitional justice processes have been recognised as an opportunity to address longstanding historical injustices against Indigenous peoples around the world. Specific processes and institutions associated with transitional justice – such as truth commissions, special prosecutorial bodies, memorialisation and reparations – may be the catalyst for political, social, institutional and cultural changes that contribute to the recognition and materialisation of Indigenous peoples’ rights, as we point out in a report we published in 2012.

ICTJ has worked to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples in various countries, including Australia, Canada, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru and the USA. In Canada, it accompanied the Truth and Reconciliation process from before its inception in 2008 to the end of its mandate in 2015.

Recognising the importance of involving young people in Canada’s truth and reconciliation process, ICTJ partnered with the Commission to spearhead youth engagement activities. Initiatives included a series of youth retreats in which participants developed the technical and communication skills needed to better engage their peers on Indigenous issues, and a youth-led video project that covered the history of the residential schools and young people’s knowledge – or lack of knowledge – of this history and the contemporary situation of Indigenous people in Canada.

As expressed by a high school student from Edmonton who participated in one of ICTJ’s events, ‘We are the next generation. After 10 years, we are going to be the adults – the lawyers, the prime ministers. We have to know when we are young, and when we are older, we can make sure this doesn’t happen’.

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