By Ken Coates, October 3, 2022
The Pope has come and gone. Ceremonies are over and the crowds have dissipated. Media interest, at a near frenzied pace little more than a month ago, has turned to new issues and events. How quickly the attention fades!
Pope Francis’s substantial and heartfelt apology lacked specifics. Numerous critics, including Indigenous commentators, hoped for more details and maybe even a reconciliation agenda from the Pope and the Catholic Church. What they received were genuine words of contrition and apology. But they did not get a road map for moving forward.
The pattern following the Pope’s visit has been fairly standard. Apologies have become commonplace. Statements of commitment are routine. When very specific undertakings have been made, as with compensation to residential school survivors, governments and agencies tend to follow through. Yet the record of the Catholic Church in this regard is less than stellar.
Because the Pope is such a public figure and celebrity, many non-Catholics (including myself) have weighed in with advice and admonitions. Most of the reconciliation efforts will be undertaken within the Church and targeted at Indigenous peoples and other Catholics. In his statements in Canada, however, Pope Francis made it clear that he hoped his apology would motivate people outside the Church’s fold. Logically, this group will be harder for the Church to reach.
Pope Francis spoke on behalf of the Catholic faith, but his comments asked for support from other Christian denominations. Non-Catholic churches have apologized in the past, but without truly moving the needle in reconciliation. The nation has been talking about residential schools for decades now, with governments offering apologies and compensation.
The Pope’s visit could have been a clarion call to all Canadians to finally take personal and collective action in support of Indigenous cultural renewal, where Canada could finally come to terms with the full and destructive impact of residential schools and related cultural intrusions. But how does one operationalize promises of contrition and reconciliation? How can apologies and statements be converted into the practical? How can the Pope and the Church demonstrate that their apologies and their commitment to reconciliation are sincere? This is a formidable challenge, and it obviously rests with the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis to determine when the promises made in 2022 have been met.
The bar for responding to Indigenous expectations is much higher than most people realize, as it should be. Indigenous people in Canada are living with the multi-generational effects of residential schools and other Church efforts to dislodge and undermine Indigenous culture and spirituality. They continue to search for real and sustained signs of non-Indigenous awareness and for new relationships that show that the broader public values the knowledge and insights that Indigenous cultures bring to the nation and the world.
Perhaps the best outcome from the Pope’s visit would be a frenzy of Canadian engagement. There would have been major events and statements at every Catholic Church in the country, congregational outreach to Indigenous communities, and substantial private and Church investments in institutions, services, and programs designed to support the rebuilding of Indigenous societies.
Had the world unfolded as many hoped, there would be thousands of examples of personal, family, organizational and institutional outreach, forging new friendship and long-term collaborations. There would be listening to and learning from Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers and extended and reciprocal participation in religious, cultural, and spiritual activities. Had such an explosion of engagement occurred – and perhaps it still will – Pope Francis’s visit in 2022 would have been seen as truly transformational.
To date, this has not happened. Among non-Indigenous populations, it appears as though the Pope’s apologies was the end of the journey, not the start. Indeed, the core lesson from the 2022 events, which must give greater weight to Indigenous comments and expectations, is this: the passion and harm are profound and deep, and learning to really walk together in true friendship is hard work. Real reconciliation will take a long time.
Canadians, and not just Catholics, must understand and acknowledge how the founding values to European expansion and colonization marginalized and harmed whole populations of Indigenous peoples. This is why discussions about residential schools have brought to the surface the Doctrine of Discovery, by which lands occupied by colonial powers were deemed to be controlled by them, and the equally off-putting ide of terra nullius that defined territories occupied for centuries by Indigenous peoples as effectively unoccupied. Indigenous communities want the country to understand the many forces, including ideological, conceptual, and religious, that stripped away their land, attacked their cultures and undermined their authority.
It is difficult to know how to move toward real and substantial understanding. Real reconciliation – and not merely apologies, contrition, and compensation – is extremely hard. Far from being close to the end of the path to reconciliation, this country and its core institutions are still trying to describe and find the pathway. After decades now of what non-Indigenous peoples believe to be serious efforts to set things right, real movement has been distressingly slight.
Despite the challenges and barriers, there are reasons for hope. Opportunity does not rest with governments willing to spend billions of dollars on Indigenous programs, apologies from church leaders, and symbolic statements supporting reconciliation. It certainly does not originate with the burning of churches and the destruction of statues, all of which are offered up by activists as signs of the desire for change. Land acknowledgements before public events are no substitute for a real and sustained search for reconciliation.
Hope for Canada rests with Indigenous peoples. Indigenous leaders routinely invite individuals to learn more about Indigenous values and cultures. These powerful lecturers speak to non-Indigenous audiences. Indigenous communities welcome visitors and encourage participation in language classes and cultural camps. Despite the ravages of history and the injustices of contemporary Canada, they stand ready to teach, welcome, include and even embrace.
Canadians have long outsourced their compassion for Indigenous peoples to the government of Canada, which sends cheques on their behalf. The nation counts on high profile leaders – like Pope Francis – to offer high-profile apologies. Yet reconciliation is the responsibility of each and every Canadian, and the good news is that there are thoroughly wonderful opportunities available.
Attend open public Indigenous ceremonies, like powwows and totem pole raisings. Sign up for Indigenous language lessons. Watch the All-Native Basketball tournament in Prince Rupert, a lacrosse game on Six Nations, or a First Nations hockey tournament in Saskatchewan. Go fishing with an Indigenous elder. Volunteer with inner-city social service organizations. Attend a talk, a seminar, a retreat, or any of the thousands of Indigenous-led events offered across the country. Go to an Indigenous church service or a regional political gathering. Take small steps, which start a personal journey toward real reconciliation.
If you are fortunate – and many Canadians will be – you will gain grand insights into Indigenous history and culture. It you are even more blessed, you will make new friendships. You will be part of the urgently needed reconciliation that is a precondition for Indigenous renewal and sustainable social justice.
Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Indigenous Affairs Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.