Seeking to build on papal visit, Canada’s bishops stress indigenous reconciliation

Pope Francis meets with clerics, consecrated persons, seminarians and pastoral workers of Canada at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec in Quebec City, July 28, 2022. Pope Francis meets with clerics, consecrated persons, seminarians and pastoral workers of Canada at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec in Quebec City, July 28, 2022. | Vatican Media

Indigenous issues were at the forefront when about 90 Catholic bishops met in Cornwall, Ontario for the Canadian bishops’ 2022 plenary assembly.

“2022 has been a historic year for listening, learning and working to rebuild longstanding relationships that have been profoundly damaged by the legacy of residential schools,” Bishop Raymond Poisson, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Sept. 29.

“Pope Francis apologized on behalf of the Church for the sins of her children, acknowledged the catastrophic impact of the residential school system and called on us to promote the rights of Indigenous Peoples and to favor processes of healing and reconciliation,” said Poisson, who heads Quebec’s Diocese of Saint-Jérôme - Mont-Laurier.

The residential school system was set up by the Canadian government, beginning in the 1870s, as a means to forcibly assimilate indigenous children and strip them of familial and cultural ties. Both Catholic and Protestant groups ran the schools, with Catholics responsible for the majority of them. 

The schools were poorly supervised and funded. The students received a poor education and lived in substandard housing. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in a 2015 report estimated that 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of disease, injury, neglect, or abuse over the decades. Tuberculosis was a major killer, as was influenza. As late as 1945, the death rate among indigenous children at the schools was almost five times the death rate of other Canadian children the same age.

The Canadian bishops’ conference president emphasized the need for continued action.

“We know that this is a journey that requires long-term commitment, dialogue and consultation, and we pray that our discussions at this plenary have been a meaningful step towards a more hopeful future,” Poisson commented.

Canadian bishops pledged continued dialogue and relationship-building with Canada’s indigenous people, known as First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. Indigenous delegations to Rome in March and the papal visit in July saw “respectful collaboration” between the Catholic Church and local, regional, and national indigenous leaders. The bishops hope to make this kind of collaboration more effective and permanent.

Poisson, writing on behalf of the Canadian bishops, sent a Sept. 26 letter thanking Pope Francis for his visit to Canada.

“There can be no question that it has left a profound and lasting mark on Canada, Indigenous Peoples, and the local and universal Church,” said the letter. He said the Roman Pontiff’s presence and his words of healing and reconciliation have helped the bishops take steps toward “a more hopeful future.”

The bishops’ meeting pledged to continue providing documentation and records to help residential school survivors and researchers find the truth, in the face of cumbersome processes to identify and request records. They have approved guidelines for dioceses across Canada, emphasizing “transparency and simplicity.”

While the historic injustices against indigenous people have been discussed for decades, the residential schools again became a major issue in Canada in mid-2021 when researchers reported preliminary findings of what appeared to be graves of students near former residential schools. 

News reports erroneously depicted the possible graves as “mass graves” and often failed to clarify that the findings had not been confirmed by exhumation and other analysis. It is also possible that any graves are from community graveyards and include remains of non-students and non-indigenous peoples of the area, including residential school staff and their families.

The reaction to the reports helped inspire a wave of vandalism and arson against Catholic churches, including some churches on indigenous land which still serve indigenous Catholics. The attacks drew condemnation from indigenous leaders. Canada’s national statistical office, Canada Statistics, reported a 260% spike in anti-Catholic hate crimes in 2021.

Catholic outreach efforts continue. 

The Canadian bishops’ meeting pledged continued support for Catholic institutions, seminaries, and religious communities that foster a greater understanding of indigenous culture, language and spiritual traditions and values. They hoped that this support would lead to more direct encounters with indigenous communities and help non-indigenous clergy and laity hear indigenous perspectives, “with attention to the issues of colonization and residential schools.”

The bishops voiced recognition for “the contribution of Indigenous culture and wisdom to our future life in Canada.” They will stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples in “their stewardship of the land and the goods of Creation, the gifts of the Creator.” They will work with local community leaders to support the spiritual well-being of young people and to address social challenges like poverty, suicide, violence, and incarceration.

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They reiterated support for the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund, which accepts donations from 73 Catholic dioceses across Canada to support reconciliation initiatives. The fund has raised $5.5 million and is “on track” to exceed its $30 million goal over five years.

The bishops said they would continue dialogue with the Vatican on issues indigenous delegates and representatives have identified. They are actively working with the Vatican to issue a new statement on the “Doctrine of Discovery,” principles of sovereignty and conquest found in some papal documents dating to the expeditions of European exploration in the 15th century, especially disputes between Spain and Portugal.

The bishops’ conference website provides documents on this subject, including the April 27, 2010 remarks of Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the apostolic nuncio leading the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations. 

Migliore said that the documents supposedly behind the “Doctrine of Discovery” were rendered irrelevant by successive documents or changing circumstances only a few years after they were issued.  He emphasized papal teaching in support of indigenous people, including the 1537 papal bull Sublimis Deus.

“Canada’s Bishops continue to reject and resist ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest way possible,” the bishops’ conference said Sept. 29. They pledged continued support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The gathering was the first in-person plenary meeting since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Bishop Poisson, in his report to the bishops, discussed ongoing child abuse prevention efforts and the Synod on Synodality. He also noted that the new French-language version of the Roman Missal was implemented across the country. The bishops’ new National Program for Priestly Formation has been published and implemented. His report anticipated new resources to help dioceses form lay ministers of catechist, lector, and acolyte in keeping with Pope Francis’ apostolic letters.

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