Phil Fontaine, leader of the Assembly of the First Nations, at the Vatican. (April 29, 2009)  (MAX ROSSI / REUTERS)  via Toronto Star


On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met Pope Francis and asked him to offer the formal apology recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The commission (2008-2015) was part of a comprehensive response to the abuse inflicted on Indigenous peoples through the Indian residential school system, and the harmful legacy of those institutions. But, as Father Raymond de Souza points out in the following article, a papal apology was accepted by representatives of the First Nations at the Vatican in 2009.

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The release of the final report of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the residential schools system spoke of the need to move from “apology to action.”  Yet there was apparently some unfinished business on the apology front, as the TRC called upon the “the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children … to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

It is puzzling why the commissioners think an apology would be a good idea.  Or, more precisely, why they think it would be a good idea again.

On April 29, 2009 — before the TRC got going, it should be noted — Pope Benedict XVI met with a delegation of aboriginal Canadians he had invited to the Vatican at the request of the bishops of Canada.  On the topic of residential schools, Benedict expressed “his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity,” according to the Vatican press summary of the meeting.

The delegation was led by national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, a former residential school student himself.  Calling the meeting the historic “final piece” of the confession of sin by the various churches, he told CBC News that it should “close the book” on the issue of church apologies.

To ignore the 2009 apology is a shame, for on that occasion Fontaine delivered a magnificent, moving and magnanimous address to the pope that stands as a model for thinking about the relationship of the Catholic Church to aboriginal Canadians.

The TRC has decided to open the book again.  It wouldn't be difficult of course to have Pope Francis offer an apology.  Indeed, papal apologies are not hard to come by at all.  Luigi Accatoli, a long-time Vatican correspondent wrote a book in 1998 entitled, When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II.  He counted 98 such requests for forgiveness, and that was more than 10 years before the Benedict-Fontaine summit.  So another apology could certainly be routinely issued, but that is precisely the problem.  If the 2009 meeting, carefully prepared as it was after much collaboration and consultation, didn't mean what everyone thought it meant, then why would a repeat achieve anything significant? To the contrary, the repeat would seem perfunctory and given under pressure, and the sincerity of the original would be called into question.  Reconciliation requires that apologies be offered.  They also need to be accepted.

To ignore the 2009 apology is a shame, for on that occasion Fontaine delivered a magnificent, moving and magnanimous address to the pope that stands as a model for thinking about the relationship of the Catholic Church to aboriginal Canadians.

“The Catholic Church has always played a significant role in the history of our peoples.  Priests and nuns were some of the first Europeans to arrive on our shores,” Fontaine began.  “They acted as intermediaries in treaty negotiations and interpretation and often expressed their serious reservations about the federal government's intentions in the implementation of the treaties.  Many embraced our languages with enthusiasm, wrote them down and created dictionaries, bibles and books of prayers that we still use to this day.  The Catholics recognized the deep spirituality of our peoples and introduced a faith to which many indigenous people devoutly adhere.”

“What brings us here today, however, was the failure those many years ago, by Canada and religious authorities, to recognize and respect those who did not wish to change — those who wished to be different,” he told Pope Benedict.  “Those at the highest levels of authority in Canada came to believe that our indigenous cultures, languages and our ways of worship were not worth keeping and should be eradicated.… The Catholic Church entities thus became part of a tragic plan of assimilation that was not only doomed to fail but destined to leave a disastrous legacy in its wake.”

“We suffered needlessly and tragically.  So much was lost for no good reason,” Fontaine continued.  “The Catholic Church, too, was harmed by the residential school experience.  Many good and decent men and women of faith were tainted and reviled because of the evil acts of some.  The hundreds of years of good will and hard work by courageous and committed missionaries were undermined by the misguided policy Catholic priests and nuns found themselves enforcing.  The reputation of the Catholic Church was impoverished.  This, too, was tragic.  But today is a new day.  We are here at the Vatican in your presence Most Holy Father, to change this sad history.”

As for papal visits, which in the usual course of events are not demanded, Fontaine recalled at the Vatican the historic visit to Fort Simpson in 1987.  In 1984, Pope John Paul II's planned visit was not possible due to bad weather.  He said he would return.  He did.

“We will never forget the visit of His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, when he came to the Canadian North to visit our people, after bad weather prevented his first attempt,” Fontaine said to Benedict.  “He celebrated Mass in our house — a giant teepee — and he prayed with the scent of sweet grass and the sound of beating drums in the air.  The reverence and respect he showed for our culture gave us the hope and strength we needed to pursue our goals, including those that have brought us here today.”

The papal encounters of 1987 and 2009, one in Canada and one in Rome, were truly historic.  In the service of both truth and reconciliation, they should not be forgotten.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a columnist for the National Post, where this article was originally published on December 22, 2015. It is republished here from Convivium, with the permission of the author.