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Local Indigenous Chief shares thoughts on papal visit, apology

Pope Francis’s apology for the Catholic Church’s participation in the residential school system genocide on indigenous people was an “important first step” for many survivors of residential schools according to R. Donald Maracle, Chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, who noted that this first step must be followed by many more.

An elderly woman listens intently while Pope Francis speaks during the Papal Mass at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. Screen captured images from the Vatican’s YouTube Channel.

“It was important to many residential school survivors that the wrong that was done in the residential school system be acknowledged, and that the Pope give an apology on Canadian soil,” the Chief said in an interview with Kingstonist, noting that section 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRCC) Calls to Action called upon 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.

“70 per cent of the residential schools were administered in partnership with the federal government [by Christian churches including Roman Catholic], some were Anglican, some were run by the United Church and some were run by the Presbyterian Church. So they were the four denominations that were a party to the residential school settlement agreement,” explained the Chief.

“I think the apology was long overdue,” said Chief Maracle, acknowledging that “there were atrocities that were committed on some students there, but I think the apology meant a lot to many of the survivors. Some will say that it was enough, but the thing is that this was the first step and Christians had to own up to the wrong that was done, and take responsibility for it.”

Maracle was impressed with the pontiff’s swift response to the delegation that visited Rome. “It was important for him to do it and I know normally the Candian Catholic Bishops would have two years to plan a visit, but he wanted this to happen quickly,” he said. “He just simply told [them] this is what he wanted to happen. So he worked pretty hard to make this happen. He is very much the people’s pope. He reaches out to the people where they are and, despite the politics that are in the church, he tried to do what is right.”

Chief Maracle attended the papal Mass at the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, in Quebec, on Thursday, Jul. 28, 2022, at the basilica dedicated to the grandmother of Jesus. He was also invited to attend a dinner meeting with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, he said, where he and an “inner circle” of 60 others had an opportunity to “discuss the issues with some of the Catholic bishops.”

“I think the symbolism of the Pope being there for that purpose, not only to celebrate the Mass but also to acknowledge the wrong and ask for forgiveness, it really was a pilgrimage of penance,” Maracle stated. “What’s most important is the language of what [the Pope] said in the apology… So I think it’d be very important for [the public] to get the English translation of the Pope’s apology because that’s why he came here.”

“[Pope Francis] said it was the first step, it wasn’t the end – the apology was the first step in healing and reconciliation,” Maracle continued. “And he did mention the sexual abuse at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré and said it was wrong to separate children from their families and break the bond of the family… to have them suffer physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the residential schools and to be deprived of their cultural identity…to be annihilated… and he did call it, eventually, genocide.”

Chief Donald Maracle and Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief, Quebec/Labrador, Ghislain Picard, pose at the basilica of St. Anne prior to the papal Mass. Photo submitted.

Asked by reporters on the plane returning to Rome, the Pope, whose first language is Spanish, said he hadn’t used the word “genocide” because it was a technical term that didn’t come to his mind, but that everything he described – the horrors of the residential school system’s forced assimilation of Indigenous children – “amounted to genocide.”

Chief Maracle said that the Pope challenged all Christians to examine their actions, and compared it to the parable of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke [Lk 10:25–37]. 

In that story, a Jewish traveller is stripped of clothing, beaten, robbed and left for dead alongside the road. First, a Jewish priest and then a Levite come by, but both avoid the man. Finally, a Samaritan happens upon the traveller. Although Jews at the time despised the people of Samaria, the Samaritan helps the injured man. Jesus is described as telling the parable in response to a provocative question from a lawyer, “And who is my neighbour?,” in the context of the “Greatest Commandment” which is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” The conclusion is that the neighbour figure in the parable is the one who shows mercy to the injured man.

“So really, what [the Pope is] doing is he’s challenging the Christian values of Catholics to see if they practice them or if they only profess them,” said the Chief. “And… the Pope gave them the challenge to examine what they’re doing as Christian people and are they doing what’s right, by the First people who were harmed in the colonization process.”

Going forward, Maracle suggested that people who suffered trauma like that might be reawakened by this apology. “Probably some of them will need help to deal with the emotions that have been retriggered by the whole event, but nevertheless, it was important for many of them to hear the Pope apologize and they were deeply moved by the apology,” he expressed. “You can see it in the expression on their faces, some of them were in tears with the apology given.”

The Chief himself is descended from people who went to the residential school at Six Nations, the Mohawk Institute. He said, “My grandfather was abused there and his sister died there and so it does affect our family.”

Maracle said one of those next steps should include the Pope repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal framework that justified European imperial ventures around the world, including the colonization of North America, by asserting that lands belonged to the Christian powers that “discovered” them – which had its roots in a series of Papal statements dating back to the 15th century. He noted that many Indigenous people would like to see this occur, pointing out the moment at the beginning of the papal Mass when two women unfurled a banner that read “Rescind the Doctrine of Discovery.”

Two women unfurl a banner at the beginning of the papal Mass that reads “Rescind the Doctrine of Discovery”. Screen Captured image from the Vatican’s YouTube channel.

“Because it was really authorizing Christians to come and take over other people’s land and resources and subjugate them. In this nation, it led to all these other abuses…the creation of residential schools… forbidding them to speak their languages, practice their culture, have control of their lands and resources and basically annihilating the people,” Chief Maracle explained.

The TRCC noted in its final report, that the Doctrine of Discovery still has relevance in the modern era, having been cited in decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada as recently as the 1990s.

Is Chief Maracle hopeful that the visit and apology will have some impact?  “It remains to be seen,” he said, “what impact will the Pope’s papal apology [will] have on Canadians. And the government of Canada, what will they do as a result of it? … Was it just a big media event and something that’s quickly forgotten, or will it resonate in the church and among the people in Canada, who are beginning to learn more about the injustice that Native people have suffered, and the history behind it? It remains to be seen.”

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