QUEBEC CITY—Pope Francis went further in his residential school apology Tuesday, but Canadian political leaders made it clear as he touched down in Quebec City that he and the Catholic Church had much further to go to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples.
Over and above reiterating that he was sorry for the participation of “local Catholic institutions” in the residential school system and the “wrong done by so many Christians,” Pope Francis said the Vatican and local church communities were committed to promoting Indigenous culture and “spiritual accompaniment.”
“It is our desire to renew the relationship between the church and the Indigenous peoples of Canada, a relationship marked both by a love that has borne outstanding fruit and, tragically, deep wounds that we are committed to understanding and healing,” he said in a speech at the Citadelle, the Governor General’s official Quebec City residence.
Francis made a commitment to respond in a “fitting way” to the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Pope would not commit to saying the words that critics of his apology are demanding to hear — that it was the Catholic Church as an institution that was responsible for the residential school abuses and that those included physical, psychological and sexual abuses. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made sure that the words were at least heard, and the extent of the mistreatment was put on the record at a ceremony in which Francis’s black-frocked cardinals and bishops sat at his right hand, surrounded by a vast representation of Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors from throughout the country.
Trudeau voiced the original demands of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the Catholic Church apologize “as an institution” for the role it played in the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual” mistreatment that Indigenous children suffered at the church-run schools.
But Trudeau diplomatically spoke of the Pope as someone who was “genuinely seeking to understand, to do right and to atone.”
Governor General Mary Simon, who is herself Inuit, took a similar approach with the Pope. She acknowledged that his visit was a message to the world that the church was committed to “reconciliation, healing, hope and renewal” with Indigenous people.
But she rejected the idea that the papal visit and apology was a gift from Rome or an act of penance.
Instead, she said, it was an Indigenous achievement.
“It is Indigenous Peoples who worked, waited and prayed for an apology on Indigenous lands in Canada,” she said. “They never gave up. We must remember that it is because of their courage and resilience that we are here.”
Simon noted Francis’s comments in Edmonton, that reconciliation is a grace that must be sought.
“To that, I would also add that reconciliation is a grace that must be earned through continuous hard work and understanding,” she said.
“We look forward to hearing more of the church’s future actions to continue this essential work.”
A spokesperson for the papal visit, Laryssa Waler, acknowledged some of the criticisms the Catholic Church has faced, particularly over the Pope’s refusal to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, which is based on 15th-century papal edicts that gave the church’s blessing to European explorers “discovering” and exploiting land in Africa and the New World that was already inhabited by non-Christians.
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The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the doctrine in 2016, following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report into residential schools. But the Pope himself has not.
Waler told The Canadian Press in an email that Canadian bishops “are working with the Vatican … with the goal of issuing a new statement from the church.”
“Canada’s bishops continue to reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way,” she said.
The Pope’s Alberta-to-Quebec journey Wednesday, to begin the second leg of his three-city visit, made for a long and physically taxing day — all the more so because of a delay in the schedule caused by a delayed charter flight that was carrying numerous Indigenous leaders for the Quebec City ceremony.
Pope Francis, who is 85 and suffering from severe knee problems and sciatica, overturned a water glass served to him as he was beginning his speech.
After the ceremony, he stood for several minutes with the help of a metal cane and favouring his right leg, while one of his aides hovered at his back, at times holding on to his white cape to ensure he did not stumble.
Eventually, the popemobile arrived, and he mounted the back of the modified white Jeep with incredible difficulty, his left leg bearing the brunt of the physical effort while his right leg swung out behind him as he ascended each of the four steps.
Installed in his white chair, the popemobile took off to tour the Plains of Abraham, the historic battlefield that had been set aside with jumbo screens and entertainment for the many curious onlookers keen to participate in the papal visit, even if only from afar.
Among them were a group of Indigenous marchers who travelled 275 kilometres on foot from the Saguenay region, north of Quebec City, to be there for the Pope’s arrival.
The march began last week at the site of the former Pointe-Bleue residential school in the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, in Roberval, Que., where the last of the federally funded, church-run schools closed in 1991.
On Thursday, the Pope is set to say a mass at the national shrine of Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré, north of Quebec City, in the morning, followed by a prayer meeting with Catholic clergy at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
With files from The Canadian Press
Allan Woods is a Montreal-based staff reporter for the Star. He covers global and national affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @WoodsAllan
Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_n_boyd
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