QUEBEC CITY—On his second-last day in Canada, Pope Francis for the first time acknowledged the “sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people” committed by members of the Catholic Church in residential schools.
Speaking during an evening prayer session with Catholic cardinals, bishops and other members of the clergy, the Pope said that the church must not allow itself to take advantage of others — including those of different faiths, cultures or languages.
“Thinking about the process of healing and reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others,” Francis said at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec.
This was the first meeting in his six-day trip to Canada that was dedicated solely to the Catholics — all others were aimed at apologizing to and seeking reconciliation with Indigenous people, particular survivors of residential schools.
The Pope’s instructions were clear to his fellow faith leaders: that the Catholic Church in Canada should seek as its model Saint François de Laval, first bishop of Quebec from 1658 to 1674, “who railed against those who demeaned the Indigenous people by inducing them to imbibe strong drink in order to cheat them.”
“Let us not allow any ideology to alienate or mislead the customs and ways of life of our peoples as a means of subduing them or controlling them,” Francis said.
If the Pope’s words were yet another small step in the direction of the apology that was expected by Indigenous leaders and demanded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they remained inadequate for others.
Earlier Thursday, at the start of the mass at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, a pilgrimage site near Quebec City, protesters unfurled a banner in front of the altar that read, “Rescind the doctrine,” a reference to the Doctrine of Discovery, which is based on 15th-century papal edicts that gave explorers permission to take land away from non-Christians. Many Indigenous leaders have called on Francis to formally renounce the policy.
Pope Francis expressed shame and sorrow for the role Catholic institutions played in the “deplorable” residential school system, promising the church would help promote the Indigenous cultures the schools tried to erase. Speaking at Quebec City’s historic Citadelle, Francis asked forgiveness for the harm done by the policies of assimilation carried out in the schools. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
“We came today to represent our family and First Nation, the Batchewana First Nation in northern Ontario, and our survivors and our family, especially a current survivor, Aunt Mary,” said Chelsea Brunelle, who unfurled the banner with her cousin, Sarain Fox.
“We were told to stop. We were told we couldn’t put the sign up, but we have the right to protest and we did it anyways, and we were successful,” she told the Star.
“Reconciliation is about action, and this is some kind of action that we can do today, whereas the Pope’s was more of a statement and we would like to see more action,” Brunelle said outside the basilica in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.
Francis has apologized for the actions of “some” Catholic clergy and for the actions of members of “local Catholic organizations” but not for the actions of the Catholic Church as an institution.
This has disappointed some Indigenous people and enraged others, including Murray Sinclair, the former judge and senator who acted as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools.
At the Thursday morning mass, Francis called on Indigenous people not to lose their Catholic faith.
“At such times … we must be attentive to the temptation to flee,” he told 1,400 congregants, among them Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier François Legault and former Liberal prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien.
To those Catholics who find themselves “confused and disappointed before the scandal of evil,” he said, “there is but one path, a sole way: it is the way of Jesus.
“Let us go out to meet him,” he added.
The majority of those in the pews of the pilgrimage site were Indigenous people and residential school survivors. Many of them were dressed in orange to represent the Every Child Matters movement — remembering the children lost in those schools and the survivors.
Some attendees were wearing floral scarves, and elders in wheelchairs sat in a section to the left near the stage.
It was clear that the apology and the murky legacy of the church’s history in Canada remained top of mind.
(Occasionally, it seemed almost subliminal. In the midst of Pope Francis’s homily, in which he spoke of the “scandal of evil” that has caused Catholics to question their faith, a cellphone also rang out with the words “I hate you,” as it played a clip from the Garrett Nash song, “I hate u, I love u.”)
Upon his arrival in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Trudeau repeated to a CBC reporter what has become a common refrain in recent days, that many Indigenous leaders appreciated the Pope’s historic apology — delivered on the Prairies three days earlier — but hoped it would go further.
Many Indigenous leaders have called for concrete action to follow the apology, such as releasing more historical records about residential schools, returning sacred artifacts or renouncing the doctrine.
Trudeau also spoke to the meaning of this visit for non-Indigenous Canadians.
“When the residential schools were teaching young Indigenous children that they didn’t have any identity or value, or language, well, the fact is, schools across the country were teaching non-Indigenous children the same thing,” he said.
“So that legacy of a lack of respect and removing the dignity of the Indigenous peoples, obviously, that is rooted in our society.”
With files from The Canadian Press
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.