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The Leadership Question: Will Pope Francis Make the Big Apology?

January 10, 2016

PopeLeadership is not just an individual phenomenon but a collective pursuit of a nation’s citizens.

No country is perfect – especially pluralistic societies. My country, Canada, has earned an enviable reputation of being a leader as a tolerant society, one receptive to immigrants, progressive in its social programs, and firm but fair in its judicial system.

Well, sort of. Let’s be realistic here. Canada is indeed a decent country, but it has its own unenviable warts. And one of those warts is a gargantuan one, dating back to long before Confederation in 1867. Like the United States and other countries such as Australia and South Africa, it has to do with the exploitation, repression and abuse of its indigenous peoples. In Canada’s case, it refers to First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples.

The darkest period in Canada’s 148 year history was its Indian Residential School system, which began in the 1870s and which finally shut down in 1996. However, the lasting effects of this system continue to have significant negative impacts on those who were forced into the system as children.

Little GirlYoung indigenous children were forcibly taken from their homes, transported to schools run by a variety of churches: Anglican, United and Presbyterian. By far the church that was most responsible for indoctrinating indigenous children was the Catholic Church. The physical and emotional pain suffered by these children at the hands of supposedly well-intentioned white, religious people makes one weep. As a 60 year-old Canadian with four adult children and five grand-children, I can only hang my head in shame at the abject failures of past federal governments to treat indigenous peoples with respect and to embrace their involvement in Canadian society. The vast majority of Canadians have paid virtually no attention to this systemic problem.

Over 150,000 children were put through the residential school system; an estimated 3,000 died. Today, there are some 80,000 survivors. Witness this statement from Public Works minister Hector Langevin in 1883 when he told the members of the House of Commons:
“In order to educate the [Indian] children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that.”

It’s hard to process this statement from a senior Member of Parliament and a father of Confederation, for whom a major federal building was later named: the Langevin Block across from Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Yet Canada has not really advanced very far in over 100 years with respect to how it treats its indigenous peoples.

SinclairOn December 15, 2015, a major event took place in Canada. It was the concluding ceremony of the final report from the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Led by Justice Murray Sinclair (see photo), himself First Nations, and his team investigated over seven years the physical and emotional abuses and deaths that occurred among First Nations and Inuit youth in the federal government’s residential school system.

Young indigenous children were torn from their homes, only to be beaten and raped, with many dying from diseases such as tuberculosis.
Present at that momentous day in December was the country’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Visibly touched by the ceremony, Trudeau stated his commitment to building a new relationship with First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples. It’s his top priority, and that of his justice minister (First Nations herself). Without pausing, he announced that the commission into the disappearances and murders of some 1,200 missing indigenous women had just started (something that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to do).

Trudeau’s moment of reality will be when he realizes that a number of the report’s 94 recommendations will require the active cooperation of the 10 provincial premiers. Just attempting to change the culture of the federal bureaucracy with respect to how it views indigenous peoples will be a daunting task. Trying to effectively influence 10 premiers in the context of a federation, in which the provinces have clearly defined jurisdiction, will require a superhuman effort.

Handcuffs.jpgBut that’s Canada, circa January 2016. What about the churches that were the front line deliverers of “service” to the thousands of indigenous youth over many decades?

To date, several churches have issued formal apologies through their head offices. The United Church was the first to do so in 1986. In 1991 the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate apologized, followed by the Anglican Church in 1993 and the Presbyterian Church in 1994. And in 2008 former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on behalf of the Government of Canada, issued in the House of Commons an apology to those who suffered in the Indian Residential School system.

That leaves the Catholic Church, the most prominent player in the residential school system, as the only organization that has not formally apologized. Indeed, the Church has left it up to individual dioceses to issue apologies.

The failure of the Catholic Church to formally issue an apology from the Vatican is not just sad it’s tantamount to immoral leadership. Now that the Church has a dynamic leader who has made a prominent show of embracing the poor, denouncing the excesses of capitalism and criticizing the impact of carbon emissions on the planet, it’s time that Pope Francis steps up to the plate and issue a direct apology to Canada’s indigenous peoples, past and present, for the major role that the Catholic Church played in the Indian Residential Schools system.

Prime Minister Trudeau stated in early December that he intended to speak to Pope Francis in early 2016 on the importance of an apology being delivered to Canada’s indigenous peoples. This will be the dual leadership test: a practicing Catholic prime minister speaking to and (hopefully) influencing the Pope to follow-through. How this process is conducted from start to finish is the big question. And it will be interesting to see how Canada’s media follows and reports on it.

Girl in Classroom.jpgThe failure of Canada’s media to “get it” when it comes to the plight of Canada’s indigenous peoples is exemplified in a broadcast just before Christmas.

On December 22 on CBC’s The National, the country’s biggest evening TV news cast, anchorman Peter Mansbridge convened his weekly at Issue panel. This edition, the year-end review, featured Andrew Coyne, Chantel Hebert, Jennifer Ditchburn, and Rex Murphy – all very competent political observers, except they’re all Caucasians from upper middle class backgrounds. Part of the panel involved questions submitted by viewers. One of the questions went this way: “For each Syrian refugee allowed into Canada, should one indigenous person be given special consideration, such as through additional funding and programs?”

Three of the four panel members fumbled around for a response, refusing to answer it directly and instead stating that the Syrian situation is a world-wide issue and one requiring Canada’s focused attention. The problems facing indigenous peoples is important but needs separate attention.

Only Newfoundlander Rex Murphy understood the question, eloquently and concisely answering that with respect to the Syrian refugees it was Canada’s “election” to assist them. For the country’s indigenous peoples, it was Canada’s “duty.”

There’s a world of difference between “election” and “duty.”

Yes, it is Canada’s duty – all 36 million Canadians – to demand that their governments, federal and provincial, begin to effectively address what is tantamount to the country’s most important priority, as articulated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And part of this process involves the Catholic Church through Pope Francis to issue a direct and sincere apology to Canada’s indigenous peoples.

This is Pope Francis’ ultimate duty.

The survivors showed great courage, conviction and trust in sharing their stories. These were heartbreaking, tragic and shocking accounts of discrimination, of deprivation and all manners of physical, sexual, emotional and mental abuse
– Justice Murray Sinclair (from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report)


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2016 9:34 pm

    What Hector Langevin meant in 1883 was that they had to be separated from their parents at a young age in order to CHANGE THEIR VALUE SYSTEM. While not condoning this thinking, it was common in the world at that time. Even in World War II, Nazis and their sympathizers bred children who they wanted to become future leaders, and took them away from their German mothers at birth to be “properly indoctrinated.” I know someone in South Africa whose sister married one of those children.

    I Justin Trudeau’s efforts could bear positive fruit for Canadian society. A number of countries have, decades later, investigated such happenings in their past. Perhaps Canadian society is now ready for this. By these things coming to light publicly, I think it may enable parts of the society who were harmed by this to begin their healing process, as the hurt is publicly acknowledged just by the investigation itself.

    I would be surprised if the Pope issues an apology. After all, was Canada’s policy part of the Catholic Church’s policy from the top? Highly unlikely. It was probably undertaken just in Canada, perhaps under the direction or decision of a Bishop. If that’s so, perhaps a Bishop should apologize. In any case, with all the sexual misconduct, I haven’t yet heard an apology from the Pope (unless I’ve missed it), so why would he apologize for a lesser issue? This is not a comment on whether he should, but I’m guessing they don’t want to start a precedent for the Pope apologizing for every bad decision underlings make around the world.

    There is one thing not mentioned in your post which I find a little surprising about Canadian society, given the little I know about it. My impression as a foreigner of Canada is that Canada is very accepting of other cultures, not really expecting them to integrate as they have been expected to in the U.S. past, for example. I wonder why Canada viewed Native American culture as such a threat, to the point where they felt they had to take children away to be indoctrinated with the prevailing culture? If you have any thoughts on that, I’d be interested in hearing them.

    I was also not even aware of these issues in Canada or Justin Trudeau’s recent initiatives on this question, so I thank you for writing about it and bringing it all to my attention. I will now be following the media specifically to see what happens with this interesting question, and how the Catholic Church responds. It would be pretty amazing if Trudeau were actually able to influence the Pope.

    • January 11, 2016 2:35 pm

      Thanks Lynne, for taking the time to share a detailed comment. I should start by noting that the Catholic Church historically had significant influence in Canada, mostly notably in the province of Quebec where it ruled over the lives of French Catholic Quebeckers. Since deserting the Church starting the sixties, Quebec’s birth rate has plummeted to one of the lowest in the Western world.

      I hear what you’re saying about the Nazis, but in Canada it was about stripping indigenous children of their cultures. As Justice Sinclair of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission put it, it was tantamount to “cultural genocide.” I agree fully. White Canadians then, and even today, still hold little if any respect towards First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.

      Something you didn’t know, including most Canadians with their limited attention spans and memories: former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who served two terms in the eighties, played a very significant role in confronting South Africa’s apartheid regime. He led the levying of sanctions on that country, and brought Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on board, both of whom wanted nothing to do initially with pushing for the end of apartheid.

      So Canada, through its past national leaders, has done good in the past. Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre, as a long-serving PM, operated at the world stage level on many issues. Let’s see what his son capable of achieving on the complex topic of addressing the wrongs imposed on Canada’s founding peoples.

      Thanks again for stopping by to comment.

      • January 11, 2016 7:07 pm

        I will keep an eye on this interesting issue. Thanks for writing about it.

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