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Opinion Reactions to the Pope’s apology show Canadians are over symbolism

Pope France wears a headdress during a July 25 visit to Canada, where he apologized to the nation's Indigenous residents. (Adam Scotti/Reuters)
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When it comes to symbolism, Canadians can’t seem to make up their minds.

The apology delivered by Pope Francis in Alberta this week for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s notorious Indian Residential Schools program was an arch example; on the one hand, the news media and political class treated the visit as an event of extreme importance — the federal government spent $35 million on it, and it was front-page news, day after day. On the other hand, high-level reactions were colored by palatable indifference, even hostility.

The Pope’s apology to victims of the ultra-assimilationist education regime once imposed on Native Canadians was the latest in a long string of public atonements for a program now cast as the darkest sin of Canada’s past. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the schools and settled a $3 billion deal with 79,309 former students and their families. The terms of the settlement required the creation of a fact-finding Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the historic treatment of Indigenous Canadians, which released its final report in late 2015.

The report contained 94 “calls to action.” While some proposed government policy, a great many were largely symbolic in nature, and it’s these that the administration of Harper’s successor, Justin Trudeau (who has pledged to implement “all” the calls to action), has made the most progress on.

His government has created a new national holiday to honor the memory of residential schools victims (call #80), announced plans to build a Residential Schools National Monument in Ottawa (#81), and changed the Canadian oath of citizenship to make reference to Indigenous Canadians (#94), among other things.

Getting the pope to issue “an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities” for the abuse of children in “Catholic-run residential schools” was call #58. Earlier this year, the Pope accordingly apologized to a delegation of Canadian Indigenous leaders at the Vatican, but this was deemed unacceptable, because the report said the apology should be “delivered by the Pope in Canada.” So on July 26, the Pope issued a second apology on Canadian soil.

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The reviews ran the gamut from tepid (“only the start”) to “blistering,” with a number of the country’s top Indigenous leaders, including Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, declaring the apology insultingly insufficient. It was common to complain that the Pope’s apology was not an institutional apology from the Church as a whole, or that he did not specifically recant the so-called “doctrine of discovery” that Catholics once cited to justify European conquest of the Americas.

Some Indigenous leaders were said to be offended by the decision to put a feathered headdress on the Pope, while many ordinary aboriginal Canadians were reported as just being fairly blasé or conflicted about the whole visit — “I’m still so hurt, it seems like that apology didn’t mean anything to me,” said Susan Caribou, an Indigenous woman from Manitoba who traveled to Alberta to hear it.

As the years go on, it really feels as though one of the core flaws of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its ambition to prescribe as many solutions as possible to improve the often bleak lives of Indigenous Canadians, was dramatically overestimating how much anyone cares about symbolic things these days.

One of the great observations of late 20th-century philosophers was that Western society had become so thoroughly engulfed by Hollywood razzle-dazzle, advertising spin, political propaganda and public relations stunts that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find genuine expressions of sincerity anymore. Instead, we were said to be living in a “society of the spectacle” (Guy Debord) dominated by “pseudo events” (Daniel J. Boorstin) and “pure simulacra” (Jean Baudrillard). The end result is a public that’s not only more numb to this endless barrage of superficially showy pomp and performance, but also more cynical, skeptical and simply aware of the ways in which showy things often mean very little.

Reaction to the pope’s apology (which even Trudeau only gave route acknowledgment) suggests that at some level, everyone associated with the Canadian Native rights movement understands this, and that even the grandest symbolic acts of atonement will be, at best, net neutral in the pursuit of improving even the emotional well-being of Indigenous Canadians. Yet for all the time, money and effort it takes, symbolism still remains quicker and easier than anything in the public policy realm, and in the coming years Canadians will doubtless witness many more spectacles just as grand as the papal visit (say, a “mainly symbolic” Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation from the Queen — call #45).

It’s fashionable to say Indigenous Canadians need “action, not words,” but after this week, it’s clear what is truly needed is a higher standard of what constitutes “action” in the first place.