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      The Pope's Apology & The Ongoing Legacy
      Of Residential Schools in Canada

      By Tamara Hansen

      Pope Francis is making a 6-day "pilgrimage of penance" across Canada from July 24-29, 2022. The focus of his visit to Canada is clearly to apologize to Indigenous people for the Catholic church’s involvement in the residential school system in Canada. During his apology speech, the Pope expressed, “I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous Peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”

      This apology has been received by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people across Canada – both residential school survivors and their kin – in many different ways. One area that many have questioned is what will happen next. The Pope seemingly addressed this explaining, “many of you and your representatives have stated that begging pardon is not the end of the matter. I fully agree: that is only the first step, the starting point.”

      However, many Indigenous people wonder about this ‘starting point,’ as many important issues were not addressed by the Pope in his formal apology. For example, he did not condemn the “doctrine of discovery,” a papal decree which attempted to legitimize the colonization of the Americas. Furthermore, the speech did not include a promise to release documents and historical records or a promise for reparations and compensation.

      The hypocrisy of the government’s inaction has been highlighted by the Pope’s visit to Canada

      According to a CTV news article, “The federal government is spending more than $35 million for the papal visit. Indigenous Services Canada and Crown Indigenous Relations are spending $30.5 million for community-led activities, ceremonies and assisting with travel costs for survivors. Another $3 million is being spent to support Indigenous communities in the three regions the Pope is visiting. In comparison, $2 million is being spent to interpret the events and comments from Pope Francis into Indigenous languages. The Alberta government is also spending up to $20 million for the visit. Much of this money goes towards road and infrastructure improvements in Lac Ste. Anne and Maskwacis.” Other articles claim Canada will also foot the bill for the Pope’s security, which is not included in these numbers.

      First, this money was announced less than two weeks before the Pope arrived in Canada, which left Indigenous communities scrambling ahead of the visit. Second, there is a glaring contradiction and hypocrisy between the government funding infrastructure and Indigenous community-led activities and ceremonies for the Pope’s visit. Because when Indigenous communities need funds for everything from clean drinking water to community-based healthcare initiatives, they are told funds are unavailable.

      Children in unmarked graves: a reminder of Canada Settler Colonialism’s ongoing legacy of genocide against Indigenous people

      The Pope’s visit to Canada and this apology come after a year of serious reckoning in Canada. May 27, 2022, marks the first anniversary of the announcement by the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia.

      After the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc announcement, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, spoke to parliament, “Saying sorry for the tragedies of the past is not enough. It is not enough for the children who died, for the families or the survivors and communities. Only with our actions can we choose a better path.”

      On June 3, 2021, Inuk MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq responded powerfully to Trudeau’s remarks in Parliament. She said, “the Prime Minister said that the remains of 215 children are from a dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history, but Indigenous peoples know that colonization is not just in the past. It is an ongoing reality.”

      Qaqqaq continued, “More than 50% of children in foster care are Indigenous, but account for less than 8% of the child population; more than 30% of inmates in prison are Indigenous, and Inuit in Nunavut die by suicide at nine times the rate of non-indigenous Canadians. Colonization is not a dark chapter in Canadian history. It is a book that the federal institution continues to write. We are tired of living in someone else’s story and refuse to continue to have it written for us. We have written and will continue to write new chapters and will not ask for permission to live lives full of dignity and respect. We will demand it.”

      In the past year, other First Nations communities have conducted their research into unmarked graves surrounding former residential school sites, uncovering hundreds of further gravesites. While many non-Indigenous people have been shocked and disturbed by the recent disclosures, many Indigenous people are not.

      In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recognized that many residential school sites had forgotten cemeteries and unmarked graves where Indigenous children who died had been laid to rest. Over 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools, and the TRC report explains that with 6,000 recorded student deaths, 1 student in every 25 died. Even this number is considered a low estimate by many experts.

      Deaths in residential schools were not a secret from the very beginning. Deputy superintendent of Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs (1913-1932), Duncan Campbell Scott, wrote, "Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and […] they die at a much higher rate than in their villages." Despite the knowledge that these schools were leading to higher rates of illness and death, Scott continued, "But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem." The 'solution' that Scott was proposing was to make residential schools mandatory for all Indigenous children in Canada. This deeper historical understanding of the architects of the residential school system hopefully clarifies why the Pope’s apology has received a mixed reception and why many Indigenous people believe it is not enough.

      Apologies require action

      In 2019, the Supplementary Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was more direct, writing, "It is time to call it as it is: Canada’s past and current colonial policies, actions and inactions towards Indigenous Peoples is genocide." This means that both government actions and inactions are, in fact, killing Indigenous people. If the government of Canada does not work actively towards empowerment and self-determination for Indigenous nations, Canada will continue along its genocidal path.

      The residential school system in Canada did not happen by accident. It was designed to cement the theft of Indigenous lands and resources to enrich a blossoming capitalist class in Canada, which continues today. In April 2022, professor Bruce Campbell wrote for the Monitor Magazine, "The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates Canada’s top 1% hold almost 26% of the country’s total wealth. Its share has jumped by five percentage points over the last two decades. In contrast, the bottom 40% of Canadians hold only 1.2% of total wealth." In these times of economic 'downturn' and rising inflation, the ruling elite continues to increase their profits and, with it, wealth inequality. This wealth is accumulated off the backs and lands of Indigenous nations in Canada and off the backs of all working people in Canada and around the world in the exploitation of so-called 'third-world' countries.

      Unfortunately, the Catholic church and other religious institutions worked handin-hand with the government of Canada, playing a major role in the theft of Indigenous lands, culture, and children. While the Pope’s apology was seen by many as an important step, apologies to Indigenous people and nations need to be followed by actions, accountability, compensation, and reparations. Indigenous nations deserve to have their right to self-determination respected and their lands returned.

      The more people in Canada become aware of these historic and ongoing crimes, the more we must organize and mobilize both Indigenous and nonIndigenous people to demand justice and self-determination for Indigenous nations in Canada.

      Follow Tamara on Twitter: @Thans01

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