Phil Fontaine has had a year to reflect since hearing an apology from the head of the Roman Catholic Church, something the former national head of the Assembly of First Nations fought much of his life to have delivered on Canadian soil.
“Without an apology, it would be impossible to forgive,” Fontaine says after taking a few minutes to contemplate the historic moment.
“And without forgiveness, there can be no true healing.”
This week marks one year since Pope Francis arrived in Canada. He delivered his first apology in Maskwacis, a Cree community south of Edmonton, in front of thousands of survivors, leaders and community members.
Pope Francis said he regretted the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the cultural destruction and forced assimilation of indigenous peoples, culminating in residential schools.
The pontiff was more apologetic when he made stops in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut during the six-day tour. On his return flight to Rome, in response to a journalist’s question, Francis said the abuses faced by indigenous peoples amounted to genocide.
The apologies met with a mixed response. Many indigenous people said it was necessary, especially for the survivors of the residential schools, because it meant that the head of the Catholic Church finally acknowledged that harm had been done.
Some criticized Francis for not going far enough. Others thought that Indigenous Peoples and organizations should disassociate themselves from the church altogether because they had spent enough energy on it. Many asked for actions, not words.
For Fontaine, the apology was extremely important.
Bullying within schools had long been silent nationally, but Fontaine broke the silence in 1990 when he spoke about his own experiences at Fort Alexander Residential School in Manitoba.
An estimated 150,000 indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools. More than 60% of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
‘A long trip’
Fontaine went to the Vatican in 2009 to meet with Benedict XVI, then pontiff, and requested an apology. Benedict did not agree.
Fontaine once again traveled to the Vatican with an indigenous delegation last year. That time, Pope Francis delivered his first apology and vowed to bring his atonement to Canada.
The apology may not have been accepted by everyone, but Francis’ plea for forgiveness is just part of the journey the church must take, Fontaine says.
“We each received the apology in our own way as individuals,” Fontaine says. “And we decide as individuals if we want to forgive.”
Donald Bolen, the Archbishop of Regina, described the papal visit and apology as “giving life.” But when Pope Francis left, Bolen says, it became even more important that the church take action.
“The real work of reconciliation happens every day on the ground,” he says. “We are on a long road of reconciliation.”
Pope Francis asked Canadian Catholics to commit to four things: ensure that history is told truthfully; support indigenous language, culture and traditions; be an ally in the pursuit of justice; and appreciate the indigenous wisdom to care for the land and the environment.
“Easier said than done,” Bolen says.
Bolen reflected on what the church has accomplished in the past 12 months. Many dioceses, including his own, have been working to provide access to the archives. There has been financial support for cultural camps and a national fundraising campaign by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Earlier this year, the Vatican formally denounced the 15th-century papal bulls used as the basis for the Doctrine of Discovery, which legitimized the seizure of indigenous lands.
Bolen says the hard daily task for churches at the local level will be to build relationships with indigenous peoples, listen deeply and learn to walk together to improve society.
But Bolen acknowledges that not all non-indigenous Catholics have committed to reconciliation in the same way. Changes in society happen over a long time, he says.
“People are in various places on the trip.”
‘So much at stake’
Paul Gareau, associate dean for Indigenous Studies at the University of Alberta, says he is feeling “slightly confused and maybe a little bit hopeful” a year after the apology.
Gareau, who is Métis and from the Batoche Homeland in Saskatchewan, says he was “gobsmacked” to see Francis participate in the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrim with a red Métis sash around her neck.
In the historical relationship between Catholics and indigenous people, Gareau says that the church has acted “like bad relatives”, making the betrayals even more devastating.
“The church has to reflect on how to be a good relative,” he says.
Francis said in his apology that the greatest evil is indifference, so it is now up to the Catholic institution to work to dismantle 400 years of colonial mentality towards indigenous peoples, Gareau says.
Gareau pointed to Vatican II, which significantly modernized church practices to meet cultural changes in the early 1960s. Not everyone immediately accepted the structural changes, but they eventually revolutionized the church.
Francis has steered the ship in a direction toward reconciliation, Gareau says. But the church must now recognize indigenous sovereignty, and that means engaging in diplomatic relations and returning the land.
It also means changing the hearts and minds of Catholics and dismantling structural anti-indigenous racism, work that cannot and should not depend on indigenous peoples.
“There is a lot at stake.”
A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support to survivors and those affected. People can access crisis and emotional referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counseling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness Hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.