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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Pope for hope?

BY Will Nicholls Aug 3, 2022

First Nations have great expectations for the visit of Pope Francis to Canada July 24-29. Many want to see his apology last April to Indigenous leaders repeated with a little more meat on the bone. Back then, the Pope didn’t have the Church take responsibility for the actions of its priests, monks and nuns – actions repeated in every region of the country for more than a century with the knowledge of the Vatican – instead largely laying the blame on individuals.

His visit comes after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools run by religious groups on behalf of the Canadian government – the program designed to eliminate Indigenous culture, language and identity. Most schools were run by the Catholic Church. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report, it was a system of cultural genocide. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced into these schools from the 1870s to 1990s. And for thousands, it was more than cultural genocide, it was the real thing.

The Commission called for a Papal apology. But many Indigenous people want more than an apology. They demand that the Catholic Church release all records from residential schools it ran to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

There is hope. The Pope called his journey to Canada a “pilgrimage of penance.” Still, in one weekly address in St. Peter’s Square, Francis said, “Unfortunately, in Canada, many Christians, including some members of religious orders, contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation that in the past gravely damaged native populations in various ways.” 

This would seem to indicate the Church’s acceptance of responsibility for its decades-long administration of a genocidal program is lukewarm.

It’s not the first time the Pope has stepped up to the plate to atone for the Church’s past atrocities. In 2015, he travelled to Bolivia to beg forgiveness for crimes against Natives during colonial times. We did notice that the Church did not return any of the gold or other resources they plundered from Latin America. And in Ireland, Francis offered a sweeping apology for the many abuses women and children suffered in the care of the Church.

Abuse is nothing new for those who attended Canada’s residential school system. But receiving justice would be a relatively new experience.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a list of over 3,000 alleged abusers and requested they testify at the hearings. None did. Neither did Canadian police forces investigate their alleged crimes. 

Inuit people will ask the Pope to assist in returning a retired Roman Catholic priest to Canada to face charges of sexual abuse. The priest lives comfortably in France. Canada has declined to say if there is an extradition request in his case. Thus, many Indigenous people question whether the Church will allow or assist in the prosecution of its agents in serious crimes.

Finally, there is compensation. All other churches involved in the residential school system have paid the amount they agreed to. Not the richest one, however – the Catholic Church. 

Despite agreeing to a specific compensation, the Church has never met its obligations. It is clearly in conflict with the philosophy of Christianity. After all, there cannot be any doubt that the holdings of the Catholic Church include incredible amounts of land, priceless art, gold and investments that make it one of the wealthiest institutions in the world. 

Still, if they must fundraise to meet their obligations, we have a couple ideas. For instance, “Pope on a Rope” soap, for those times when you must shower after being a bad boy or girl. And we once saw a toy goat that when pressed it would bellow. Squeezing a Pope toy, perhaps His Holiness would cry out, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” 

That would appeal to survivors. Who knows, after hearing the Pope scream “sorry” a few hundred times they may start to believe it. Perhaps then the Pope of hope would justify some hope for the Pope.Pope for hope?

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.