Bishops push back on planned House of Commons motion seeking Papal apology for residential schools

NDP MPs Romeo Saganash and Charlie Angus and Sen. Murray Sinclair will speak about a motion expected to be debated in the House of Commons this week calling on the Pope Francis to apologize for residential schools.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops sent letter to parliamentarians to clarify 'errors'

Pope Francis has said through the CCCB that he does not plan to apologize for the Catholic church's role in residential schools. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

The organization representing Catholic bishops in Canada is pushing back against a motion expected to be debated in the House of Commons this week calling on Pope Francis to apologize for residential schools.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) sent a mass email to parliamentarians on Monday afternoon outlining what it believes to be "misunderstandings and errors" behind the move to introduce the motion.

The motion, which could be debated as early as Wednesday, calls on the CCCB to invite the Pope to Canada to apologize to residential school survivors.

Pope Francis has said through the CCCB that he does not plan to apologize.

A CCCB spokesperson said the letter was meant to simply inform federal politicians.

"It was not meant to stop the motion, it was meant to inform the parliament members about the issue and the perspective of the Catholic Church," said René Laprise.

'Really disturbing'

Laprise said the CCCB plans to hold a news conference Wednesday on the issue in Ottawa.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who co-wrote the motion with NDP MP Romeo Saganash, said it's clear the bishops are trying to derail the motion.

NDP MP Charlie Angus says push-back from bishops on apology not helping reconciliation. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It is really disturbing that, rather than address the issue of reconciliation, we have the Canadian Catholic Bishops Conference claiming that as bishops they had no role in the residential school system," he said.

"The bishops played key roles in pushing for the system .… This is not a road the bishops want to walk down."

The NDP motion is supported by the Liberals, and the efforts from the CCCB will not change that position, according to the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.

Bennett's office said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requested an apology when he met with Pope Francis in the Vatican last year and the request still stands.

"We continue to believe an apology from the Pope, on behalf of the Catholic Church, is an important step in acknowledging the past and moving toward reconciliation," said an emailed statement from Bennett's office.

The Conservatives will decide whether to support the motion at Wednesday's scheduled caucus meeting on Parliament Hill, said spokesperson Jake Enwright.

"[Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer] has previously said any organization or institution or individual who was responsible for this very dark chapter in Canadian history should apologize," said Enwright.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett says government still supports motion calling for Pope's apology. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The wording of the motion calls on the House of Commons to ask the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops "to invite Pope Francis to Canada to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church to Indigenous people for the Church's role in the residential school system ... to respect their moral obligation and the spirit of the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and resume best efforts to raise the full amount of the agreed-upon funds ... to make a consistent and sustained effort to turn over relevant documents when called upon by survivors of residential schools, their families and scholars working to understand the full scope of the horrors of the residential school system in the interest of truth and reconciliation."

Not associated

An apology from the Pope is one of the 94 calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was created by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to delve into the history of the institutions which sought to assimilate Indigenous children.

The conference said in its letter to parliamentarians, which was also posted on its website, that the "Catholic Church as whole in Canada was not associated with the residential schools." The conference said only 16 out of 61 Roman Catholic dioceses were involved with residential schools along with about 36 Catholic orders "out of over one hundred."

The conference said Canadian bishops already apologized for residential schools in 1991 and that First Nations leaders have stated that the previous Pope's expression of sorrow over residential schools put the matter to rest.

In its letter, the conference recollected that former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine had said after a Vatican meeting in 2009 that Pope Benedict's expression of regret would "close the book" on the need for an apology.

A CBC News story about the encounter includes that quote. It said Fontaine did not believe Pope Benedict's words amounted to an apology, but "the fact that the word 'apology' was not used does not diminish this moment in any way," Fontaine said, according to the article. "This experience gives me great comfort."

The conference letter also quoted B.C. First Nations Summit Grand Chief Ed John, who also attended the meeting, from the same CBC News story saying "I think in that sense, there was that apology that we were certainly looking for."

Fontaine told CBC News the conference had taken his words out of context.

CBC News reached out to John, but he was not immediately available for comment.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him