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‘A message of hope’: Reactions to the Pope’s residential school apology

By Michael Lee

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    TORONTO (CTV Network) — Indigenous leaders, activists and others are reacting to an apology by Pope Francis on Monday for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system, a moment recognized by some as an historic event, while others continue to urge the pontiff to follow up his words with action.

Pope Francis issued his apology during a visit to the former site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alta., a journey he is calling his “penitential pilgrimage.”

“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,” he said.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) released a statement calling for continued reconciliation and further investments in Indigenous healing.

“This a significant first step towards reconciliation and acknowledging the intergenerational trauma residential schools have had on Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island,” CAP National Chief Elmer St. Pierre said.

“After failed attempts and a lack of will, it’s time the Catholic Church make the investments needed to help ensure individuals and communities can heal.”

The statement added that the CAP hopes this “historic” apology will encourage Indigenous people to reclaim their rich cultures and traditions.

“The vast majority of Indigenous Peoples now live in urban areas creating the need for more supports and programs off-reserve and in southern cities,” the release says.

“CAP demands the Catholic Church make the reparations necessary to ensure all Indigenous Peoples have access to culturally relevant supports no matter where they live.”

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, responded to the papal visit saying an apology is about “actions.”

“You show that you actually are sorrowful and you’re committed to not making the same mistakes again through your actions. That is what this apology should be judged upon,” she wrote on Twitter.

She highlighted the actions needed to eliminate the physical and sexual abuse of children around the world, the church’s acceptance of responsibility for those abused or who died in its care, reparations and support for victims.

“The most important day of an apology is the day after, and the year after. We all need to be looking at what the Pope does then,” Blackstock said.

In a news release, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the government policy of residential schools, with the participation of churches, “created deep wounds that are not easily or quickly healed.”

“Yet we saw at Maskwacis both the resilience of Indigenous Peoples in preserving their culture, as well as the goodwill of Catholics and other Canadians to both truth and reconciliation,” he said.

In a statement released by his office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said reconciliation is the “responsibility of all Canadians.”

“It is our responsibility to be open, to listen, and to share. It is our responsibility to see our differences not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to learn, to better understand one another, and to take action,” Trudeau said.

“No one must ever forget what happened at residential schools across Canada and we must all ensure it never happens again. In the spirit of reconciliation and healing, together we will build a better future — for Indigenous Peoples and all Canadians.”

Lori Idlout, Crown-Indigenous Relations critic for the federal New Democratic Party, said in a statement that the Catholic Church’s role in the “genocide” against Indigenous people still affects families and communities.

Idlout added, “Immediate action is urgently needed to ensure healing from crimes committed against Inuit, First Nations and Métis, at the hands of the churches.”

“The Catholic Church and the government worked together in harms and crimes, and they must work together to ensure that the harm done to Indigenous Peoples is being addressed in meaningful ways. Co-operating with ongoing investigations and making all documents requested by survivors, police and local governments available is the very least that the Church and the federal government can do for Indigenous Peoples,” Idlout said.

“The Pope’s visit is an opportunity to forge a new path toward healing — it must not be symbolic.”

Pope Francis also apologized for being unable to visit other Canadian communities that extended invitations to him, including Winnipeg.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs acting Grand Chief Cornell McLean said in a statement that the Pope’s apology is a step toward healing for many.

“It has been over a year since discovering over a thousand unmarked graves of children on Indian Residential School grounds, and we are still mourning them. An apology does not ease the pain of lost children who never returned home, or the legacy First Nations carry as the Survivors, their children and their grandchildren,” he said.

“However, we encourage the Church to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation by making concrete commitments and true reparations going forward.”

Here are other reactions to Pope Francis’s apology:

“Pope Francis’s words today and in Rome this spring represent a journey that has taken more than 180 years — from the time the doors of these so-called schools opened to the challenges First Nations people live today,” former Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine, who attended two Manitoba residential schools, said in a statement. “By apologizing for the abuses of the past, Pope Francis has helped to open the door for survivors and their families to walk together with the church for a present and future of forgiveness and healing. I accept and choose this path.”

“Every survivor will choose how they feel about the apology. We have witnessed the Pope’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action No. 58 — and heard a message of hope to our people, Canadians, and Catholics worldwide: First Nations cultures, languages, and traditions matter. This message will help to guide us all on the path to reconciliation,” AFN Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse said.

“I believe today was a very good second beginning, because I believe it started long ago when leaders of the day, before I was around, asked for those very same things,” Audrey Poitras, president of the Metis Nation of Alberta, said.

With files from CTV News and The Canadian Press

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