Updated May 1, 2018
Parliament will ask Pope Francis to visit Canada and apologize on behalf of his church for the abuses committed against children by Roman Catholic priests, nuns and other officials at this country’s former Indian residential schools.
The invitation comes after the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday in favour of a motion tabled by MP Charlie Angus, a New Democrat from Northern Ontario who is himself a Catholic. It was supported by all members of the Liberal government, the MPs who were elected as members of the Bloc Québécois, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and all but 10 Conservatives.
The motion aims to satisfy one of the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent years looking into the tragic experiences of the Indigenous students of the church-run schools that operated for more than a century in Canada. Thousands of children died and many more were physically and sexually abused.
“It’s time that the church finally does the right thing, that the Pope comes to this country and apologizes personally to those that suffered in these residential schools and that are still suffering today, to their families, their relatives and their grandchildren,” said Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation which represents 49 First Nations in northwestern Ontario.
“In order for true reconciliation to happen in this country, the church needs to do their part as well,” Mr. Fiddler told reporters on Parliament Hill. “And that starts with their leader, Pope Francis.”
Mr. Angus tabled a similar motion last week, asking Canada’s Catholic bishops to urge the Pope to make the trip to Canada for the apology. But that motion was introduced using a procedure that meant it could only be passed with the unanimous consent of the House, and there were Conservatives who shouted their opposition.
So Mr. Angus tried again with a different type of motion – one that bypassed the bishops to appeal directly to the Pope and needed only a majority of MPs to stand in favour.
“This was an overwhelming show of solidarity from every part of the country, from all political stripes, asking the Pope: ‘Do the right thing.’ This is certainly unprecedented,” Mr. Angus said after the vote passed by a margin of 269 to 10.
“I am very, very confident that Pope Francis will respond,” he said, “and I am hopeful the Catholic bishops of Canada will hear this message and say ’yes, we have to come to the table, we have to deal with these issues.’ ”
Francis has not shied away from apologizing for other wrongs done by the church. In 2010, a papal apology was issued to Irish victims of sexual abuse. In 2015, he apologized in Bolivia to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas for the “grave sins” of colonialism. And recently the Pope begged forgiveness for the “grave errors” in judgment he made in defending a Chilean bishop who covered up the abuses of a pedophile priest.
Two Roman Catholic bishops held a news conference in April to say the Pope may eventually apologize for the role that the church played in the Indian residential schools, but that it was not up to them to tell him what to do.
Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, stood in the House of Commons on Tuesday to thank Mr. Angus for his work on this issue. “I have written to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to request a meeting to move this important step forward,” said Dr. Bennett, “and hope that they will meet directly with survivors.”
In addition to the apology, the motion calls on the church to resume its efforts to raise $25-million for Indigenous healing, as required in the residential schools settlement agreement that came into effect in 2007. That fundraising campaign was abandoned by the Catholic dioceses in Canada in 2015 and just $2.1-million in donations was given to Indigenous causes.
It also calls on the church to hand over any remaining documents that could help survivors of the schools, their families and scholars “understand the full scope of the horrors of the residential school system in the interest of truth and reconciliation.”
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, centre, speaks to reporters with NDP MP Charlie Angus, left, and Kim Jonathan, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, right, about the NDP’s motion calling on the House of Commons to officially ask the Pope to apologize to residential school survivors. (Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA—Chief Kimberly Jonathan had tears in her eyes as she spoke about witnessing more than 250 MPs call on Pope Francis to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the Indigenous residential school system.
Jonathan was on Parliament Hill Tuesday to watch MPs in the House of Commons vote in support of a New Democratic Party motion for a papal apology. The tally was 269 to 10, with most MPs from every party joining the call for the pontiff to apologize for the church’s role in the school system that was deemed a tool of “cultural genocide” by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015.
“It’s more moving than I can express,” said Jonathan, chief of the Saskatchewan-based Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. “We stood together today in Canada.”
Tuesday’s motion included an invitation to Pope Francis to come to Canada and apologize, and called on the Catholic Church to “resume best efforts” to raise funds as agreed in the 2006 settlement deal between residential school students, religious groups that run the schools, and the federal government. The motion also asked Catholic entities to make “consistent and sustained” efforts to provide documents from the schools to former students who want them.
In March, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said the pope would not “personally respond” to the request for an apology issued by the TRC in its 94 calls to action.
Charlie Angus, the NDP MP who sponsored the motion, said it was an “historic” day for Canadians, and expressed confidence that Pope Francis will respond, calling him the “social justice” pope.
“This was an overwhelming show of solidarity from every part of the country, from all political stripes, asking the pope (to) do the right thing. This is certainly unprecedented,” Angus said.
The 10 MPs who voted against the motion were Conservatives. The party’s Indigenous affairs critic, Cathy McLeod, disagreed with those in her party who felt it wasn’t Parliament’s role to ask the pope to apologize.
“You only need to hear the stories from the people that attended the residential schools to understand how much impact that it had on them,” McLeod said, adding that she is proud that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the one to apologize for the residential schools on behalf of the Canadian government in 2008.
Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said a papal apology is important for the country to “move forward” from the wrongs committed in residential schools. “This needs to happen,” he said.