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Opinion The Catholic Church can do more to address crimes against Indigenous Peoples

Pope Francis arrives at the Commonwealth Stadium to celebrate mass Edmonton, Canada on July 26. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Emily Riddle is a writer, public library worker and editor in Edmonton, Alberta. She is Nehiyaw and a member of the Alexander First Nation. She is also on the board of advisers for the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led think tank based out of Toronto Metropolitan University.

On Sunday, the Pope landed in what we call Treaty Six Territory, but you are more likely to know it as Edmonton, Alberta. The purpose of his visit was delivering an apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement in the genocidal project known in Canada as residential schools — a system that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their parents and tried to assimilate them into Euro-Christian society.

“I am deeply sorry — sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples,” Pope Francis said.

The Pope addressed his comments to several thousand residential school survivors in a pow wow arbor. For me, it is survivors and their voices who should guide our path forward from now on.

The Catholic church will not lead our healing — but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a responsibility.

I know a number of survivors for whom the Pope’s apology was incredibly meaningful. I know others who would have preferred the Pope not visit our land and were triggered by his presence here.

Many of our people are still trying to find their way back home — some literally and others culturally. We are still facing violence from the state. Our families continue to be separated by provincial and federal policies.

I am part of the first generation in my family to not be sent to residential schools or imprisoned by the child welfare system. But today there are more Indigenous children in the child welfare system than there ever were in residential schools (less than 8 percent of Canadian children under age 15 are Indigenous, but Indigenous youths make up more than half the children under 15 in foster care).

The last residential school closed in 1996, so this is not a long-gone history. We are still grappling as families and communities with the intergenerational trauma. But this is not just about us individually and collectively doing healing work.

The Roman Catholic Church owes us reparations and ongoing solidarity if they are serious about the apology delivered by the Pope.

An important step would be returning land the Roman Catholic Church owns in Canada to Indigenous peoples. One of the Roman Catholic Church’s legacies is the Doctrine of Discovery, which for centuries has relied on papal bulls from the 1400s to justify stripping Indigenous peoples from their lands because they are not considered fully human. The Pope did not mention this in his apology, nor did he rescind these papal decrees.

The Catholic Church should also fund efforts to revitalize and teach our languages. Children who attended residential schools in Canada were not allowed to speak their Indigenous language, and many were physically punished if they did. All the Indigenous languages spoken in Canada are considered to be in danger of disappearing. We need support to ensure our languages, which hold our worldviews, continue to survive.

Pope Francis’s visit came in response to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was organized by residential school survivors. One of their calls to action urged 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 in Catholic-run residential schools.”

But of the 94 calls to action, only 12 have been completed.

Though the Pope promised an investigation and assistance for survivors for the traumas they suffered, the Catholic Church should start by paying the full $25 million they committed to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2006. At this time, they have contributed under $4 million.

Many children did not survive residential schools. We know from testimonies shared by survivors through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse were rampant at these institutions. Last summer 215 unmarked graves were identified at the Kamloops residential school through ground penetrating radar. There are many who deny the existence of these graves. Non-Indigenous people in Canada must help us battle against this denialism.

For (Nehiyaw) Plains Cree people like me, children are sacred, lent to us from the Creator. These sacred beings were stolen from us and taught to hate their own culture. The work to ensure all our children are honored and connected to their culture will continue long after the Pope has left our land. We will continue to call for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and the return of our lands. We will continue to advocate for justice for children in the child welfare system. The Pope’s visit is an important day in our history, but there is much work still to be done.

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