Skip to main content

Matthew Wildcat is a member of Ermineskin Cree Nation and an assistant professor at the University of Alberta.

In the lead-up to and aftermath of Pope Francis’s trip to Maskwacis, Alta., a narrative has emerged: that his apology marks a beginning. Headlines such as “Apology is Only the First Step” have helped affirm that thinking. Yet, after attending Monday’s apology in Ermineskin, I was left with the feeling that the apology was the end of the story, not the start.

I grew up just down the road from where the apology took place; I had a kokum and mosum who were members of the Catholic Church and who attended Ermineskin Residential School. I found the apology deeply moving – not just to see and hear the words being spoken, but to witness the silence, the applause, the tears and, at times, a sense of triumph.

Pope Francis’s apology failed to acknowledge the Church’s full role in residential schools, Murray Sinclair says

Pope Francis acknowledges ‘catastrophic’ effects of residential schools in historic apology to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples

The Pope apologizing on Indigenous territory for the harms committed by the church was necessary. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission spoke with approximately 7,000 people across Canada during its work, and among the commission’s recommendations that emerged from conversations with survivors was Call to Action 58, urging the Pope to apologize for the role of the Church in abuses committed against Indigenous communities. The apology represents a fundamental step required to give survivors of residential schools the dignity of knowing the head of the Catholic Church has admitted that the institution committed grave harms and is deeply sorry.

I view the Pope’s apology as fulfilling this call. It was imperfect – it was too difficult for survivors to access passes needed to attend in person and the remarks specified individuals rather than the Church as an institution. Yet, rather than treat the apology as a first step, I view this as a crossroads. And one path is that Indigenous nations can disengage from our relationship with the Church.

  • Pope Francis waves the the crowd as he makes a lap at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

    1 of 33

To be clear, I am not talking about Indigenous people at large. Many Indigenous peoples are members of the Church, and genuine efforts at reconciliation are being made, including in the Archdiocese of Regina. Many Catholic Churches continue to operate on First Nation reserves or have substantial Indigenous congregations. And we need some people and organization to keep pressure on the Church to turn over documents and artifacts.

But these relationships with the Catholic Church are not the same as the ones that governments of Indigenous nations have been pouring their effort and energy into. Unlike our relationship with Canada, Indigenous nations don’t need to maintain substantive relationships with the Catholic Church. When it comes to Indigenous nations’ relationships with the Crown (Canadian governments) and Canadian society, on the other hand, everyone is in it for the long haul. The symbolism of a first step is thus more apt in this regard, as we are still in the early stages of Canada’s willingness to engage with Indigenous nations as distinct political entities.

Opinion: Pope Francis’s apology was heartfelt and historic. But it left us wanting more

So: what if the apology was the end of the story, for Indigenous nations? Many have argued for actions, not words, and have criticized the Pope’s apology on its merits. But while relitigating semantics might produce an improved apology in the future, that will come at great effort and expense. And ultimately, the responsibility to act falls on the shoulders of the Church. On a moral level, it should absolutely respond with financial commitments and transfers of land back to Indigenous nations – but why should we trust it? The Church has not proven to be a good partner, and given the years it took to produce an apology, it does not seem like a wise use of energy for Indigenous nations to compel the Church to act when our plate is already full pursuing decolonization.

In deciding where Indigenous nations place our energy, we must consider how the space we are giving to the Catholic Church is polarizing. The apology was a necessary step, considering it was called for by survivors, but it also created new ripple effects of harm – not simply because it brought up old wounds for many, but also because the apology brings to mind freshly all the ways in which the harms of colonization are currently being enacted, and it requires hard work to grapple with them. It is completely reasonable that for many Indigenous people a sense of indignation was provoked by the Pope’s apology, and not just because of the content.

And so, until the Church assumes the responsibility to pursue action that the majority of Indigenous people can get behind, the governments of Indigenous nations have to ask themselves if they really want to take more steps in this particular journey. The Church, its leadership and congregations may very well be taking first steps, but Indigenous nations and Indigenous people themselves have already done more than enough to show the Church the path it still has to walk.

Pope Francis apologized and asked for forgiveness on his "penitential pilgrimage" for the abuses suffered by Indigenous people at residential schools in Canada. Watch the full statement the Pope made in Maskwacis, Alta. on Monday.

The Globe and Mail

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.