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Gerard O’ConnellJuly 29, 2022
Pope Francis poses with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a meeting at Citadelle de Quebec, the residence of Mary Simon, governor general, in Quebec City July 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis’ time in Canada was primarily dedicated to encounters with the Indigenous Peoples, the central purpose of his visit. But from the time he arrived in Quebec on the fourth day, his visit was given over entirely to meetings with the country’s top authorities. He first met with Governor General Mary Simon, who is the first Indigenous person to hold this office; then Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Once their official meetings concluded, the three each took turns to address about 100 civic and Indigenous leaders, residential schools’ survivors, and members of Canada’s diplomatic corps. But even at these more official meetings, the central focus was on the Indigenous Peoples.

The pope's meetings at the fortified Citadelle of Quebec revealed much about the state of the relationship between the Canadian government and the Holy See. The relationship between the two governments has appeared uneasy in recent years, as is evidenced by the Canadian government in their decision not to appoint an ambassador to the Holy See for the past three years. Canada has instead sent two successive chargé d’affaires; which is diplomatic speak for a person who acts in place of an ambassador to a foreign nation, either in a temporary capacity or because the country does not wish to send someone of higher rank to represent them on foreign lands. It is notable that for a number of years, Canada has not engaged in any significant way with the Holy See on a variety of global issues. The two governments, however, did work well together in preparation for the pope’s visit—a development that may signal a new day for their relationship.

It is notable that for a number of years, Canada has not engaged in any significant way with the Holy See on a variety of global issues.

The governor general addressed the pope directly in her speech. “Your holiness,” she said, “they came to hear what you had to say with hearts and minds open, some willing to forgive, some still living with the hurt, but all willing to listen. Everyone hoping to further their healing journey.” The governor general was referring to the Indigenous people who had come, on the first day of the pope’s visit, to Maskwacis to hear the pope’s apology for the church’s historic abuses and shameful involvement in Canada’s residential schools’ system. Ms. Simon recalled that in Inuktitut, the language spoken by the Inuit People, “to heal” is mamisagniqa, which translates as “a journey, not a destination,” she said. “It takes time. It begins slowly, softly, carefully. It follows its own path, carrying us forward, but also in many other directions.”

“There has been a monumental shift in our thinking in Canada,” Ms. Simon said. “Now is the time in our country’s history and consciousness for reconciliation. As we address this issue and the future health and well-being of Indigenous communities, I put my faith in each of us to encourage healing.”

“I have great hope in what I have seen so far during this visit,” the governor general said.

“I have great hope in what I have seen so far during this visit,” the governor general said, ending her speech on an upbeat note. “Canada looks forward to working with the Holy See on reconciliation, as well as many other pressing global issues such as promoting peace and education, breaking down barriers, fighting poverty and disease, and rebuilding trust. Thank you for your efforts.”

But when Mr. Trudeau took to the podium, the tenor of his speech was more critical. He appeared to throw on the Catholic Church much of the blame for the suffering caused to Indigenous children in the residential schools. In his speech, he emphasized “the role that the Roman Catholic Church, as an institution, played in the mistreatment on the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse that Indigenous children suffered in residential schools run by the church.” The prime minister’s reference to “sexual” abuse appeared to observers to draw attention to the fact that Pope Francis had not specifically mentioned “sexual abuse” as one of the abuses that Indigenous children suffered in residential schools. In his apology, the pope only apologized explicitly for “how children suffered physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse,” but not for sexual abuse, an omission that through the week upset many survivors. (The pope did apologize for clergy sex abuse during his homily July 28 at Quebec’s Notre Dame Cathedral.)

As Mr. Trudeau continued his address, he praised Pope Francis for coming to Canada to give the apology on Indigenous soils—something the prime minister had pushed for since 2017, when he met the pope in the Vatican. “On Monday morning,” Mr. Trudeau added, “I sat with survivors and felt their reactions to your apology. Each will take from it what they need. But there’s no doubt that you had an enormous impact.”

“On Monday morning, I sat with survivors and felt their reactions to your apology. Each will take from it what they need. But there’s no doubt that you had an enormous impact.”

Pope Francis appeared to push back on the prime minister’s earlier criticism of the church. In his speech, he underscored the responsibility of Canada’s governments for the residential schools’ system. “In that deplorable system, promoted by the government authorities of the time, which separated so many children from their families,” the pope said, making clear the Canadian government had played a pivotal role when it mandated that it was compulsory for Indigenous children to attend residential schools. Nonetheless, the pope also took responsibility for the church’s role in the system and acknowledged that “different local Catholic institutions played a part,” he said. “I express my deep shame and sorrow and, together with the bishops of this country, I renew my request for forgiveness for the wrong done by so many Christians to the Indigenous Peoples.”

The pope also drew significant attention to the scandalous fact that while Canada is among the world’s richest countries, an alarming number of its 1.7 million Indigenous People live in dire poverty. While the United Nations’ 2020 Human Development Index ranks Canada at number 16 out of 189 countries, Canada’s own statistics reveal that 25 percent of Indigenous people live in poverty and that 40 percent of Indigenous children share in the same deplorable condition and lack adequate education. Francis signaled this as an urgent responsibility for the Canadian government and called for a more equitable distribution of wealth.

While Canada is among the world’s richest countries, an alarming number of its 1.7 million Indigenous People live in dire poverty.

Above all, Francis called for the state and the church “to work together to promote the legitimate rights of the Indigenous populations and to favor processes of healing and reconciliation between them and the non-Indigenous people of the country,” which would required a new kind of relationship to the one that prevailed during the period of residential schools.

Diplomatic sources later told America that the appointment of a new Canadian ambassador to the Holy See would be a good indicator that Canada seriously intends to work together with the Holy See along these lines.

However, the next day, July 28, Mr. Trudeau’s office issued a statement asking the church to take the first steps. The statement revealed that the prime minister had discussed with Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, “the need for the church to take concrete action to repatriate Indigenous artifacts, provide access to residential school documents, address the Doctrine of Discovery, and ensure justice for survivors, including for the Rivoire case.”

The prime minister discussed “the need for the church to take concrete action to repatriate Indigenous artifacts, provide access to residential school documents, address the Doctrine of Discovery, and ensure justice for survivors, including for the Rivoire case.”

The Rev. Johannes Rivoire is a 93-year old priest who is accused of crimes of sexual assault against children in Nunavut where he ministered in the 1960s. He returned to his native France in 1993.

Canada’s Public Prosecution Service announced shortly after the prime minister’s statement was released that morning that it has made a request to France for the extradition of Father Rivoire but offered no more details of when or the details of alleged crimes. The Rivoire case is known to the Vatican because when the Inuit delegation came to Rome in March they asked the Vatican to intervene in extraditing the priest to Canada to answer for his alleged crimes. The news of the extradition was shocking, nonetheless, given it came on the eve of Francis’ three-hour visit to Iqaluit, the capital city of the Canadian territory of Nunavut south of the Arctic circle, where he would meet with the Inuit survivors of the residential schools and young people and elders of the nation.

The doctrine of discovery is a sensitive one for many Indigenous Peoples. At the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré, the Quebec site of the second Mass of the papal visit, two young Indigenous activists unfurled a banner in front of the altar as Francis began the Mass. “RESCIND THE DOCTRINE” was the phrase plastered across the sign, which refers to a set of three papal letters in the 14th-century that justified European Catholic powers taking the Indigenous lands they “discovered.”

[Explainer: Could Pope Francis revoke the 15th-century ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ used to justify colonizing Indigenous peoples?]

When the Indigenous delegations came to Rome four months ago they explicitly asked for the pope to rescind the doctrine of discovery. America asked Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., about this on the eve of the visit. “The question is being studied,” he said. Other sources, among them the director of the Vatican press office, have suggested a statement relevant to the doctrine could come sometime after the visit.

When the Indigenous delegations came to Rome four months ago they explicitly asked for the pope to rescind the doctrine of discovery.

Pope Francis avoided these contentious issues in his speech at the governor general’s residence.

During the visit, Indigenous activists were paying great attention to every statement made by the pope. Phil Fontaine, one of the best known survivors who in 1990 spoke out against the abuses he had suffered at two church-run residential schools, told America the pope’s mention in his Quebec speech of Catholic “institutions,” not just individual “members” of the Catholic Church, was “a significant addition to the apology” he had made on the first day. “It reflects the reality that the Catholic Church in Canada is not one institution, it is made up of about 73 different legal institutions, all of which were defendants in the law suits,” he said. “It is as close as [the pope] can get to apologizing for the Catholic Church in Canada.”

As the pope’s visit nears its end, I am particularly struck by one incident that revealed to me, more than any other, the impact Pope Francis is having on Canada.

Moments before celebrating the Mass for Reconciliation at St. Anne de Beaupre, Pope Francis was driven in his popemobile through the crowd. Spotting a young woman with a baby in her arms, he stopped to kiss the baby. Later that young woman told CTV she had traveled eight hours just to see the pope. When asked why she thought the pope had kissed her baby, she replied, brimming with emotion, “I feel reconciled.”

Many people had wondered how Francis would hold up during this physically-demanding visit, given his ongoing mobility problems. As his “penitential pilgrimage” draws to a close the verdict seems clear. He has done extraordinarily well. And it seems he is set to do more international travel, starting with Kyiv.

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