Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 538, 4 August 2022

Canada: Pope's visit signifies a growing awareness of the violation of indigenous communities
Avishka Ashok

In the news
On 29 July, Pope Francis ended the "Pilgrimage of penance" in Canada after making multiple stops in cities across the country, meeting indigenous communities, and apologizing for the atrocities committed by the Roman Catholic church in former residential schools.

On 25 July, the Pope arrived at the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage site outside Edmonton after a member of the Kehewin Cree Nation delivered a speech about the violence on indigenous communities in Canada. The Pope then apologised to the indigenous people for the horrifying abuses committed toward as many as 1,50,000 children from the community.

The Pope said: "I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, 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 acknowledged that his apology would not mean closure to the issue and must be perceived as the beginning to repairing the past. He called for a serious investigation into the school's actions and assisted the survivors in healing from the trauma.

Issues at large
First, the problem. In Canada, the Catholic Church was in charge of over 70 per cent of the residential schools between the 1880s and 1990s. The actions of the Church have prolonged impacts even in the present times and can be identified through impoverishment, systemic racism and inequality. The indigenous female population of Canada amounts to four per cent but makes up for a quarter of the female suicides in the country. The women from these communities are 4.5 times more likely to be a victim of violent crimes than women from other communities. The most defining impact of the residential schools and the Church's policies is the loss of languages, culture, customs, and traditions caused by the separation of the children from their families and the inhuman conditions in the schools.

Second, the Pope's visit. Pope Francis' visit to Canada comes seven years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission demanded an apology from the Church for operating a network of residential schools that marginalized and suppressed indigenous communities. In April 2022, the Pope apologized to the people of the First Nations in the Vatican City and promised to visit Canada and apologize to the people in person. The current visit draws from the first apology to the Canadian First Nations people and also acknowledges the crimes committed by the discriminating institution more than 100 years ago.

Third, a series of apologies. The Church's apology to the indigenous people in Canada comes at a time of increased recognition and acceptance of past errors and wrongful policies by the entities in power. In August 2021, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern formally apologized to the Pacific communities for the "Dawn Raids." In September 2021, French president Emmanuel Macron apologized for France's destructive role in Algeria and atrocities against the people of the country. In May 2021, Macron sought forgiveness from Rwanda for its role in the 1994 Genocide. The apologies are being made as reports of abuse become public and cannot be ignored. In March 2021, the UN reported on the Nordic country's history of racism against the Sámi people.

Fourth, the exclusion of sexual abuse. One of the primary criticisms of the apologies made by the Pope in the previous week is the failure to address the sexual abuse of the residential schools. According to some estimates, over 10 to 50,000 children died at these schools because of harsh physical labour, violence, and abuse by priests, nuns, and staff members. There were reports of children as young as six years killing themselves after being assaulted by the staff. The grave violation of their human rights was not a secret and was known to the government in 1907 when the Indian Affairs Chief visited the schools and found that on average 25 per cent of the student died in the schools. The Church has also been accused of forced sterilization and abortion.

Fifth, Canada's response. The Canadian government issued a formal apology to the communities in 2008 and described the incident as a sad chapter in the history of the country. The government was historically supportive of the Church's policies. The First Prime Minister of Canada John A Macdonald supported the idea of removing the children from their parents. In 1920, the former Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs said that he wishes to get rid of the "Indian problem." The government has now come a long way in accepting its errors, apologizing, and providing reparations. The government also referred to the Pope's apology and said that it wasn't enough and was just a start to the reconciliation process.

In perspective
The issue of abuse against indigenous people is gaining importance in the 21st century because of the intergenerational trauma inflicted on the community and the vehement suppression of the mishandling in the past. Pope Francis' apology to the indigenous community is a start for countries and governments across the world to acknowledge the crimes against the indigenous population and initiate reconciliation. The apology stands in line with Pope Francis' image of a liberal and modern head of the Catholic Church who himself advocated and took the responsibility for the abuses of the institution. The apology is late to the communities who lost thousands of children to cultural assimilation tactics but is better than the crimes being left unreported and unchecked forever.

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