Pope Francis’ apology was a long time coming

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This is not only the shame of the Catholic Church and other churches that ran the schools on behalf of the Canadian government. It is the shame of all of us.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 1, 2022.

OTTAWA—Mission accomplished. Pope Francis’ apology tour was a long time coming.

Former Assembly of First Nations’ national chief Phil Fontaine first broached the subject of a papal apology more than two decades ago.

The issue was reiterated as one of the recommendations of the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Delegations repeatedly made the request to the Holy See.

Having the Pope speak from the heart on Canadian soil, to express true sorrow and penitence for the atrocious treatment of Indigenous children in residential schools, was the real first step in reconciliation.

You could witness the pain in the eyes of elders listening to the Pope’s first apology in Alberta.

In some instances, tears streamed from their faces when they weighed the meaning of the message they had waited a lifetime to hear.

If you had not lived the Sixties Scoop, or multiple relocations of children over the past century, it is hard to fathom how horrifying that must have been for six-year-olds to be stripped of their language and culture.

One story that has stuck in my mind was that of an elder who was explaining his first experience in residential schools.

His mother had made him a beautiful tanned leather jacket, replete with traditional fringing and beading, to wear proudly on his first day at school.

Love and history went into that garment, which should have warmed the lad and reminded him of his far away family every day of his young life.

Instead, the moment he arrived, the jacket was torn from his body and thrown in the garbage. He was warned never to try to get it back.

That coat was a symbol of his lost culture. He subsequently tried to escape from school on more than one occasion, only to be found and brought back by police.

The foregoing is not only the shame of the Catholic Church, and other churches that ran the schools on behalf of the Canadian government.

It is the shame of all of us.

We may not have known what was being done in the name of Christianity.

But we all share responsibility.

And, just as the Pope said last week, this is not the end of the journey of reconciliation. It is only the beginning.

The church needs to open up its records so those who were buried in anonymous graves after dying at school can be properly buried.

It also needs to be transparent with the financial resources that were supposed to form part of the original settlement signed off with the Government of Canada.

The response to the Pope’s visit definitely depended upon the demographics of who was hearing the apology.

For young people, it was generally viewed as too little too late, while the elders appeared generally appreciative of the content and authenticity of the Pope’s message.

Criticism did not only come from the young. An Indigenous priest from St. Basil’s Church was very direct in attacking the lack of Indigenous messaging during the mass performed by the pope in St. Anne’s, Alta., a well-known pilgrimage for Métis Catholics from Western Canada.

He also pointed out that the pope did not accept responsibility in the name of the Catholic Church, but rather in his own name and on behalf of certain evildoers amongst the clergy.

But, as Fontaine said, if the head of the church makes this historic apology, he is speaking for the whole church.

There will, no doubt, be many who can weigh in to diminish the gravitas or sincerity of the pope’s penitence.

But for those who have been waiting a lifetime for the simple words, “I am sorry,” it has finally happened.

The last time a papal visit occurred in Canada, it took a year’s planning and happened in one location at a youth mass in Downsview, Ont., in two languages.

This time, in three months, the pope was able to visit three provinces and deliver a message of penitence in 15 languages, including 12 Indigenous languages.

Elders were able to finally hear in the apology in their own language, which was also a really important step toward forgiveness. That effort was supported by funding from Minister Marc Miller, who is studying the Mohawk language himself.

Many can find fault with some elements of the pope’s message, and will attack the things that he did not say.

But he made it very clear that the Catholic Church was turning its back on the old missionary ways of hierarchical conversion.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.