Pope's decision to not issue apology 'a slap in the face,' residential school survivor says

The decision by Pope Francis not to issue an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in abuses committed in residential schools amounts to “a slap in the face,” according to one survivor.

Pope Francis says he cannot personally apologize for abuses

A letter released Tuesday says Pope Francis can't personally apologize for residential schools. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

The decision by Pope Francis not to issue an apology for the Catholic Church's role in abuses committed in residential schools amounts to "a slap in the face," according to one survivor.

A letter released Tuesday by the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops says Pope Francis has not shied away from recognizing injustices faced by Indigenous peoples around the world, but that he can't personally apologize for residential schools.

Peter Yellowquill was sent to a Catholic residential school in Brandon as a child and he says the Pope's refusal to apologize strikes a blow to reconciliation efforts in Canada.

"It's kind of stunning, really," he said in an interview on CBC's Up to Speed. "In the very real sense, [this] confirms for some of our people ...Then all this talk about reconciliation can't be real. I think for a lot of people, the work has to go on, reconciliation has to go on. It just can't stop, it won't."

Peter Yellowquill attended a Catholic residential school in Brandon. (CBC)

Yellowquill, who identifies as Christian, also said the decision is disappointing to believers in Indigenous communities.

"To me it's a stab in the eye and as a Christian, I find it extremely disappointing. It's really a slap in the face to those who are making the effort to reconcile, truly reconcile."

An apology from the Catholic church is one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon said the decision by Pope Francis doesn't preclude a possible future visit to Canada, in which a meeting with Indigenous people would be a high priority.

"Indigenous people need to be involved in such an eventuality, so that it's not just a matter of ticking off a particular call to action, so to speak," he said in an interview with CBC's Power and Politics.

I believe there is a strong element within the church leadership that residential school survivors are not telling the truth.- Senator Murray Sinclair

​Gagnon said the Pope is aware of the TRC and its recommendations, and has expressed sorrow for injustices suffered by Indigenous people around the world. Gagnon also pointed out that Pope Benedict XVI expressed sorrow for the treatment of Canada's Indigenous people in a meeting with former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine.

Senator Murray Sinclair, who led the TRC, said that expression of sorrow was not enough.

"It's like the driver of a car saying, 'I'm sorry that you got hurt when I ran you down, but I'm not responsible for the fact that the car ran you down," he said.

Senator Murray Sinclair led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (CBC)

There is no excuse for not apologizing, Sinclair said, adding he suspects their reluctance to do so might be because of ongoing litigation in Canada and elsewhere.

"Also I believe there is a strong element within the church leadership that residential school survivors are not telling the truth," he said.

Many survivors have said that they need an apology in order to heal, Sinclair said, and refusing to issue one threatens to widen schisms within Indigenous communities between Christian and non-Christian people.

About 72 per cent of residential schools included in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement were Catholic schools, Sinclair said.

"The Anglican Church has apologized, the United Church has issued an apology, the Presbyterians have issued an apology. But we've heard nothing of that sort from the Catholics," he said.

Sinclair's son Niigaan, a native studies professor at the University of Manitoba, described the church's decision as "remarkably short-sighted and disrespectful."

Reconciliation cannot happen in Canada without an apology from the Catholic Church, he added.

"Before we can have any reconciliation we have to have truth," Niigaan Sinclair said, adding that an apology would "be a recognition by the church that they participated in genocide."

Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who has Cree and Métis heritage, said he believes the Church will eventually apologize — a day he said may come during a future papal visit to Canada.

"If one man could simply snap his fingers, things would have been done a long time ago, but unfortunately that doesn't happen in large institutions," said Ouellette, who said he attends a Catholic church.

With files from The Canadian Press