The Pope’s Meetings With Canadian Indigenous Leaders: An Explainer

COMMENTARY: They are a continuation of the process of reconciliation that is underway because of the Catholic Church’s participation in Canada’s assimilationist residential-school policy for Indigenous children.

Flags mark the unmarked graves of more than 750 who were buried on the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Cowessess First Nation, Saskatchewan, June 25, 2021. Pope Francis will meet with representatives of the First Nations on March 28 and 31 and April 1.
Flags mark the unmarked graves of more than 750 who were buried on the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Cowessess First Nation, Saskatchewan, June 25, 2021. Pope Francis will meet with representatives of the First Nations on March 28 and 31 and April 1. (photo: Geoff Robins / AFP via Getty Images)

Canadian Indigenous leaders will meet with Pope Francis for four hours over three days this week in Rome. The papal encounter is the latest step in a decades-long “reconciliation” process, as it is known in Canada, dealing with the colonial and early confederation period. 

While American Catholics are aware of similar controversies related to St. Junípero Serra — canonized in 2015, after Pope Francis waived the usual requirements — the background to this Canadian delegation is less well known.

In 2021, Canada experienced something akin to the Black Lives Matter phenomenon of 2020. The number of demonstrations was not as great, but there was intense public anger. The cause was the discovery of unmarked gravesites — not mass graves, as was erroneously reported — at residential schools for Indigenous children. The painful legacy of residential schools was reawakened. 

The children were not killed, but died at the schools — tuberculosis often the culprit, along with poor health care in remote regions. 

The residential-school policy of the Canadian government took children from their families to attend schools where assimilation was the official goal — “to kill the Indian in the child,” according to the infamous words of the time. Aboriginal languages and cultural practices were suppressed.

While it was a government policy, with near-universal support in the late-19th century, most of the schools were run by churches, as they were the only institutions with people willing to serve in isolated areas under poor conditions. Most of the church-run schools were Catholic, and most of the Catholic schools were run by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. 

Over the century or so that the schools operated, some 150,000 children attended them. 

In the 1980s, adults who had attended the schools began to tell of their experiences there, including harrowing tales of emotional, spiritual, psychological, physical and sexual abuse. 

The Church responded with fulsome apologies. 

In 1991, the Oblates — who actually ran most of the schools — issued a comprehensive, four-page apology before a gathering of some 20,000 Indigenous Canadians on pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne. (Most Indigenous Canadians are Christian.)

The Oblate apology did not mince words:

“We apologize for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious imperialism that was part of the mentality with which the peoples of Europe first met the aboriginal peoples and which consistently has lurked behind the way the Native peoples of Canada have been treated by civil governments and by the churches. We were, naively, part of this mentality and were, in fact, often a key player in its implementation.
“In sympathy with recent criticisms of Native Residential Schools, we wish to apologize for the part we played in the setting up and the maintaining of those schools. We apologize for the existence of the schools themselves, recognizing that the biggest abuse was not what happened in the schools, but that the schools themselves happened, that the primal bond inherent within families was violated as a matter of policy, that children were usurped from their natural communities.”

Since the early 1990s, there have been repeated apologies in the same vein from all levels of the Church in Canada, many of them part of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (TRC) set up by the federal government. The TRC reported in 2015.

In 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology in the House of Commons on behalf of the government of Canada. The other national churches involved — Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church of Canada — had made their national apologies earlier. In 2009, a delegation of Indigenous leaders met with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome, at which time the Holy Father apologized for what so many Indigenous children and families had suffered. 

At that encounter, Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, delivered one of the most profound addresses ever given on the history of Church-Indigenous relations:

Today is a joyous day for the human spirit. It is a momentous day for our people and for our country, Canada. …
The Catholic Church has always played a significant role in the history of our peoples. Priests and nuns were some of the first Europeans to arrive on our shores. Our ancestors taught the newcomers how to survive the cold, how to live off the land and how to navigate the vast continent. They taught them diverse and beautiful languages, including those of the Mig’maq, Anishinabe, Cree and Dene. In return, missionaries built schools, churches and hospitals — not just in cities but also in remote areas of the country where our people lived.
The Catholics recognized the deep spirituality of our peoples and introduced a faith to which many Indigenous people devoutly adhere. What brings us here today, however, was the failure those many years ago, by Canada and religious authorities, to recognize and respect those who did not wish to change — those who wished to be different.
For reasons rooted in imperfections of the human condition, those at the highest levels of authority in Canada came to believe that our Indigenous cultures, languages and our ways of worship were not worth keeping and should be eradicated.
To implement this belief, the Canadian government adopted the policy of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families and communities and placing them in Indian Residential Schools under the care and control of members of Catholic entities and other churches.
The Catholic Church entities thus became part of a tragic plan of assimilation that was not only doomed to fail but destined to leave a disastrous legacy in its wake. Many children died in these schools, alone, confused and bereft. Countless others were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. The fabric of family life for thousands of our people, young and old, was shattered.
We suffered needlessly and tragically. So much was lost for no good reason.
The Catholic Church, too, was harmed by the residential-school experience. Many good and decent men and women of faith were tainted and reviled because of the evil acts of some. The hundreds of years of goodwill and hard work by courageous and committed missionaries were undermined by the misguided policy Catholic priests and nuns found themselves enforcing. The reputation of the Catholic Church was impoverished. This, too, was tragic.
But today is a new day. We are here at the Vatican in your presence, Most Holy Father, to change this sad history. Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. While the past must never be forgotten, our destiny lies in building a future with enduring foundations, the cornerstone of which must be forgiveness.”

Great efforts by Indigenous leaders and Catholic religious orders and bishops bore fruit in that 2009 Vatican encounter. At the time, it was widely considered to have “closed the book” on the apology issue.

Then, in 2015, the TRC issued a demand that Pope Francis come to Canada “within a year” to offer another apology. The TRC took a more radical line in its report, calling the Canadian policy “cultural genocide” and the churches complicit. After the TRC report, the view that Canada itself was an illegitimate enterprise took hold in the cultural establishment, not unlike the “1619 Project” of The New York Times in relation to slavery in the United States.

While relations on the local level between Catholic dioceses, religious orders and Indigenous communities are often excellent across the country, at the level of political leadership, there is more friction. Indeed, the rhetoric of the current Assembly of First Nations leadership suggests that it would have been better if Christian missionaries never came.

In light of all that, it was decided to organize another papal encounter to renew and deepen what took place in 2009. It was set for 2020, but was delayed by the pandemic. During that delay, the 2021 discovery of graves returned the issue to public prominence and tension. Thus the meeting with Pope Francis has taken on added importance.

The meetings will be followed intently in Canada. What the Holy Father has said previously about Catholic treatment of Indigenous peoples in Latin America (Bolivia 2015, Mexico 2021) makes it likely that he will apply the same approach to Canada.

Last fall, the Holy Father indicated his willingness to visit Canada for the purposes of Indigenous reconciliation. That trip, not yet announced, is expected to take place this year.

The meetings with Pope Francis are scheduled to take place today, Thursday and Friday.