MPs vote overwhelmingly to call on Pope to apologize for church's role in residential schools

By a vote of 269 to 10, MPs backed a motion to invite Pope Francis to Canada so that he can apologize for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the Indian residential school system. The ten holdouts were all Conservative MPs.

Catholic Church ran 72 per cent of Indian residential schools in Canada

Most MPs want Pope Francis to apologize personally for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the residential school system. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

By a vote of 269 to 10, MPs backed a motion today to invite Pope Francis to Canada so that he can apologize in person for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the Indian residential school system.

The ten holdouts were all Conservative MPs: David Tilson, Scott Reid, Brad Trost, Cheryl Gallant, Ted Falk, Kelly McCauley, Garnett Genuis, Harold Albrecht, Guy Lauzon and Bev Shipley. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was absent during the vote; he's addressing an Assembly of First Nations special chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que.

The motion, introduced by NDP MP Charlie Angus, also calls on the church to respect its "moral obligations" and the "spirit" of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which included a pledge by the church to raise funds for survivors.

The church has never fulfilled its commitment to raise $25 million for residential school survivor healing programs.

The motion also calls on the church to hand over "relevant documents" it may have in its possession that disclose the horrors of the residential school system. Those documents could be made available upon request to survivors of the schools, their families or scholars.

"This is a hopeful day — a historic day — but the work is far from over," Angus said after the vote.

"Working together, transcending political stripes, and reaching out to Pope Francis to invite him on this journey to reconciliation is a necessary step, but is only one of many steps we need to take. We must do better for Indigenous Peoples every single day in order to move forward on a path of true healing for the crimes of the residential school era."

Bishop Lionel Gendron, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), wrote in a March 27 letter that Pope Francis is "aware" of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and takes them "seriously," but "felt that he could not personally respond" to the requested apology.

Gendron said a "future Papal visit to Canada may be considered, taking into account all circumstances, and including an encounter with the Indigenous Peoples as a top priority."

When asked about the motion Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians have been waiting a long time for such an apology from the church.

"I asked the Pope personally when I was there in the Vatican," he said.

The Catholic Church, through its various religious orders, ran 72 per cent of Indian residential schools, which were created to erase Indigenous cultures and assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream Canadian society. About 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools during the century-plus the institutions operated in Canada.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which conducted an exhaustive six-year study of the residential school system, found physical, mental and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, and some 6,000 children died in care due to malnourishment or disease.

In 2009, Pope Benedict did express "sorrow" on behalf of the Catholic Church for "deplorable conduct" by some members in their treatment of Indigenous children in residential schools.

The TRC said Benedict's statement was inadequate because it wasn't made in public, and recommended the apology be similar to the one Pope Benedict delivered in Ireland in 2010 to victims of abuse by the church.

Approximately 25 per cent of all Indigenous peoples in Canada identify as Catholic, and they are found in every diocese across the country.