The Leadership Question: Will Pope Francis Make the Big Apology?
Leadership 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.
Young 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.
On 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.
But 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.
The 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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