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Canada May 8, 2018

MPs vote to invite Pope to Canada for apology

By Deborah Gyapong

New Democrat MPs Charlie Angus and residential school survivor Romeo Saganash introduced a motion calling on Pope Francis to come to Canada to apologize for Church-run residential school abuses. (CCN photo)

The House of Commons has overwhelmingly supported a motion to call on Pope Francis to apologize on Canadian soil for abuses that occurred at Church-run residential schools.

The motion introduced by MP Charlie Angus received all-party support in a May 1 vote, with a count of 269-10.

What happens next, however, remains unclear. 

The motion is not binding. The Pope has already been invited to Canada by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to issue a papal apology as called for in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report. Pope Francis has also received invitations from individual bishops.

But in a March 27 letter released by the Canadian bishops conference to the Indigenous peoples of Canada, Bishop Lionel Gendron said a papal visit was not imminent and the Pope “felt he could not personally respond” to the TRC request to apologize in Canada.

The all-party support for the motion was expected after no dissenting voices stepped forward during an April 26 debate on the matter. MPs from all parties endorsed the call for a papal apology in Canada as outlined in Call to Action #58 in the TRC report.

An earlier version of the motion had put the onus on Canada’s bishops to bring the Pope to Canada. But after Conservative MP Garnett Genuis objected to the government interference in Church affairs, a new motion was drafted to bypass the bishops and take the matter directly to the Vatican.

Angus described the April 26 debate as “a historic moment for the Parliament of Canada.” He said Parliament created the TRC to examine the evidence and the Commission found “the policies of the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church at the time constituted a genocide.” 

Actually, the TRC report denounced the government, not the Church, for pursuing a policy of “cultural genocide.” It said the government’s Aboriginal policy dating back to the 19th century was intended to assimilate Native children into Canadian culture, and called the establishment and operation of residential schools one element of that policy. Catholic entities, as agents of the government, operated about 60 per cent of those schools and many of them were guilty of physical and emotional abuse of children.

While the wording of the revised motion was softened after consultation with the Liberal government, Angus continued to take aim at Canada’s Catholic bishops, whom he has blamed for the Pope not accepting other invitations to apologize in Canada.

“I want to say that I have been appalled by the line I heard from the Canadian bishops,” he said. “They have tried to evade their role in working with us on reconciliation. They have followed a pattern time and time again of defending, covering up, and hiding for each other. It all comes back to liability. It all comes back to money.

“Does anyone think the survivors are here for money?” he asked.

Angus expressed confidence the Pope “is capable of understanding the importance of this motion, because he has a vision of reconciliation and justice for all.”

The Minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, Carolyn Bennett, said she was “pleased to have worked co-operatively” with Angus on  the revised motion.

“Our government also wants to take this opportunity to show that reconciliation is not a partisan issue,” she said.

“The residential school system was a systemic plan to remove indigenous children from their homes, families, and cultures, and to facilitate the stated policy of ‘killing the Indian in the child,’” she said. “Students endured unconscionable physical and mental abuse, and generations of Indigenous peoples were left emotionally scarred and culturally isolated.”

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools over a period about 100 years, and the TRC estimated 6,000 of them died, she said.

Cathy McLeod, the Conservative critic for Indigenous Affairs, supported the motion while noting a “need to respect the independence of religious organizations and their activities.”

She pointed out the motion is “an expression of how Parliament feels,” one she hopes the Pope will hear when he makes his decision. She stressed the motion is an invitation.

“An invitation is very different from a direction,” she said.