Pope Francis Pilgrimage and Apology to Canadian First Nations Brings Hope of Reconciliation

The Holy Father’s visit to Canada is intended to help heal a wound in the Church’s relationship with the Inuit, First Nations and Métis people.

Pope Francis met with Delegations of Indigenous Peoples of Canada on March 28, 2022.
Pope Francis met with Delegations of Indigenous Peoples of Canada on March 28, 2022. (photo: Vatican Media)

AKWESASNE, Mohawk Nation Territory — This July, as Canada’s indigenous Catholics get ready to celebrate the memorial of St. Ann, the grandmother of Jesus, the Holy Father plans to visit Canada at three locations near to Canada’s indigenous people: the Inuit, the Metis, and the First Nations. 

The Vatican announced May 13 that Pope Francis will start his July 24-30 pilgrimage by visiting Iqaluit, the capital of the northern Nunavut territory for the Inuit. The Holy Father will travel to Quebec City, which is near the St. Anne de Beaupré shrine, for the First Nations in eastern Canada; and finally Edmonton, Alberta, for the Métis and First Nations of western Canada, which is near the pilgrimage grounds of Lac St. Anne, also known as “God’s lake.” 

The papal pilgrimage will coincide with the July 25-28 Lac St. Anne pilgrimage, which draws tens of thousands of indigenous Catholics each year to pray or experience healing from the waters. 

While the Holy Father has canceled other trips this year, including to Israel and Lebanon, due to his increasing physical disability, the Vatican’s announcement has sent a strong signal to Canada’s indigenous people about his determination to be with them and help heal a painful wound in the Church’s history, according to some indigenous Canadian Catholic leaders.

“I think his presence is definitely going to make a big difference,” Sister of St. Anne Kateri Mitchell, a member of the Mohawk nation, told the Register from Akwesasne, which sits on the border of the U.S. and Canada.

Back in April, Pope Francis spoke with delegations that each represented Canada’s indigenous people — the First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit — as they told him about the suffering they endured by the Church’s involvement in the Canada’s government’s residential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries that separated children from their parents and deprived them of their language and culture. 

“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness of the Lord,” Pope Francis said, calling the Church’s direct involvement in colonialism  a “counter-witness” to the Gospel. “And I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”

Sister Kateri said the Pope’s apology and commitment were received positively among Mohawk Catholics she talked with at the recent Kateri Celebration at St. Regis Mission Catholic Church in Akwesasne. Pope Francis is anticipated to repeat his apology again in Canada when the Pope journeys to be with Canada’s indigenous peoples. 

“Look at the physical shape he’s in — and he’s going,” Sister Kateri said. “His presence is going to make a difference. We still have a lot of faithful people.”


Wounded Catholic History 

Indigenous Catholics have played a critical, but unsung role in the Church’s history in Canada, contributing their own Catholic heroes, martyrs, and missionaries over nearly four centuries

Pope St. John Paul II’s papal trips to Canada sought to put a spotlight on this neglected history of the Church, including his famous declaration in 1984 that “Christ, in the members of his body, is himself Indian.” The Holy Father seemed keen to not only highlight St. Kateri Tekakwitha, whom he beatified, but also jumpstart other indigenous causes in Canada, such as Joseph Chiwatenhwa, Marie Aonetta and their family whom he called “heroic” in their faith, and “provide even today eloquent models for lay ministry.” 

However, Pope Francis’s trip to Canada’s Inuit, Métis and First Nations people comes in the aftermath of a national reckoning over the destructive legacy of the Canadian government’s residential schools, which removed at least 150,000 children from their families, and relocated them far away from their communities, in the process deliberately depriving many students of their language and other elements of their culture and identity. 

The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada documents how during this time, the government co-opted churches into this policy with the Catholic Church becoming the biggest operators of residential schools. These schools the government left chronically underfunded even as it took more aggressive action to compel indigenous children to attend them as part of their assimilation strategy. Prior to this, the Church’s educational model had been to establish schools within the community itself, speaking the native language and teaching the faith in its cultural context. In many residential schools, clergy and religious who inflicted physical, emotional and sexual abuse on some children further compounded the trauma.

More than 4,000 children are known to have died in Canada’s residential schools from the 1860s until they closed in 1969, mostly from infectious diseases during the period prior to 1950 when antibiotics to treat these diseases had not yet been developed. The government refused to pay for children’s bodies to be returned to their parents, and Catholic operators of these schools could not afford to send them back and in some cases failed to care afterward for the children’s graves. 

Many eventually became unmarked and practically forgotten. However, when 200 unmarked children’s graves were discovered in 2021 at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, it set off a national firestorm that included vandalization and arson attacks against a number of Catholic churches. Canada’s bishops apologized in September 2021 for the Church’s participation in the schools, and pledged to raise $30 million for survivors of residential schools. 

“The Church is not the sole culprit in this — the government is responsible for our troubles,” Deacon Rennie Nahanee of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, a member of the Squamish First Nation, told the Register. The Church’s failure, he explained, was agreeing to “help take the Indian out of the child.” 

“Fortunately, the government failed,” he said. 


Healing the Future 

Deacon Nahanee explained that Canada’s indigenous people are looking for the Church to be allies in restoring justice.

“I’m very happy the Pope is coming to Canada,” Deacon Nahanee said. 

The deacon said the Church needs to make itself a partner with indigenous peoples’ efforts to restore their language, which is vital to their identity and culture, and the well-being of their families. He is working on translating the Roman missal into the Squamish language — so Squamish Catholics could pray in their language (and actively be relearning it) with the Mass. 

Pope Francis made it easier for national bishops’ conferences to translate the Roman Missal into native languages with the 2017 motu proprio Magnum Principium

Deacon Nahanee pointed out that having the Church’s liturgy in native languages would provide a critical opportunity to relearn the language and pass on the identity that has helped native people survive for centuries. And he said it is important for the Church to intentionally inculturate indigenous spirituality and expression, as it has done with other cultures all over the world, into Catholic liturgy.

“That would be great thing to do,” he said. 

Language restoration efforts could be an important tool in saving lives. According to a 2007 preliminary study by the University of British Columbia (UBC) of 150 Indigenous communities in British Columbia, Canada, youth suicides dropped to near zero in communities where more than half the people could converse in their Indigenous language; but Indigenous communities in which less than half the members spoke their own language saw six times the suicide rate.

Canada’s indigenous people are also looking for the Pope to formally repudiate papal declarations made in the 15th century that served as part of the legal foundation for colonial claims by some European nations. Although Pope Paul III made such an attempt in 1537 to repudiate what is called the “doctrine of discovery,” he rescinded the order to promulgate his teaching the following year after pushback from Spain. Three centuries later, the U.S. Supreme Court instrumentalized these papal declarations to formulate a “doctrine of discovery” to extinguish indigenous nations sovereign claim to their own lands’ title, utilizing a legal reasoning that also influenced Canada’s legal approach to indigenous people. 

“It would be an act of good faith,” Deacon Nahanee said. 

Deacon Nahanee stressed this is an opportunity for the Catholic Church, particularly the people in the pews, to learn about this history, “which a lot of them really don’t know about.” Canada’s indigenous people need them as allies, he said, to make things right.

“It’s not the people’s fault — it’s the government’s fault,” he said. “They took our children, they took our land, they took our resources and left us with nothing.”


Becoming the Church Christ Intended

Deacon Nahanee also said Catholics have an opportunity to show itself to be “the Church we never got to see — that many of our ancestors never got to see.”

“I’m hoping that reconciliation can move forward, and that healing can start.” 

Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate Father Garry Laboucane, a Métis elder and pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Vancouver, told the Register that the Holy Father has shown he has wanted to “listen to the people who were in the residential schools and hear their personal story.” 

Father Laboucane, who is the director for the Lac St. Anne pilgrimage, said he had no details yet as to whether Pope Francis would join them from Edmonton, despite his interest to do so, given his mobility issues. (The same issues have precluded the Vatican planning a visit to Kamloops by the Pope, which has disappointed some indigenous Canadians.) 

However, the priest said the Holy Father’s pilgrimage will help encourage the Church to take more steps of reconciliation, including those that are underway already in places like the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

“He's more frail than he used to be and yet, he's still making an effort to be here,” he said, despite the demands for the Pope’s presence all over the world. “That's a great sign. He acts as a father, a man of compassion who cares for people.” 

Pope Francis’s apology and his pilgrimage, the priest added is “a big step for the Church.” 

“But it’s up to us as a Church to continue the work of reconciliation and walking with indigenous people,” he said. “That’s our work.”