This is my speech in the Senate on Senator Mary-Jane McCallum’s motion:
“Motion to Call On the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops—Debate Continued
On the Order:
Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator McCallum, seconded by the Honourable Senator Coyle:
That the Senate call on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to:
(a)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, as outlined in Call to Action 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report;
(b)to respect its moral obligation and the spirit of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and resume the best efforts to raise the full amount of the agreed upon funds; and
(c)to make a consistent and sustained effort to turn over the 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.
Hon. Murray Sinclair: Honourable senators, I’m rising to speak to Motion No. 325 which calls upon the Conference of Catholic Bishops to do three things: first of all, to invite Pope Francis to Canada to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church to Indigenous peoples for the church’s role in the residential school system; two, to ask the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Church to respect their moral obligation and the spirit of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and resume best efforts to raise the full amount of the agreed-upon funds to which it committed in the agreement; and, three, to make a consistent and sustained effort to turn over the 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 interests of truth and reconciliation.
As a backgrounder, let me start with a quote attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who was the Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said in one of his public speeches when addressing a gathering of church congregations:
When you came to this land, we had the land and you had the Bible. You held out your hand and asked us to close our eyes as you prayed. When we opened our eyes, you had the land and we had the Bible.
The residential school system is one of the darkest, most troubling chapters in our collective history. It takes incredible strength to share what happened in those institutions because the students were told never to talk about it and that no one would believe them if they did. For many, it took generations to break this “no talking” rule, and now it is our responsibility to honour their courage with meaningful action.
I want to begin by acknowledging and thanking Senator McCallum for her leadership and courage in sharing with this chamber her personal experience at the Guy Hill Indian Residential School. It is of great historical significance that this motion is brought forward in the very place that passed laws that gave life to the residential school system by a senator who was directly impacted by decisions made here.
An Hon. Senator: Hear, hear.
Senator Sinclair: Nearly two thirds of the residential schools operating all across Western Canada were run by the Catholic Church. It administered 54 of the 139 schools covered in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, plus numerous other day schools. The Catholic Church, however, is the only party to the settlement agreement that has not formally apologized for its role in what occurred within that system. The Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church in Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, have all issued formal apologies for their participation in the schools and for their efforts at forced assimilation and indoctrination of the children who were taken there.
Let me begin by asking you to consider the question of why apologies are important. In this day and age, those of us who are experiencing situations of strife, common situations in our families, when we recognize that we have been harmed, hurt or offended by another, we always look for an apology in order to be able to get on with the relationship that we had. Apologies are important to ongoing relationships.
In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a set of basic principles on reparations, stating that apologies should be made publicly and that they should constitute “an acknowledgment of the facts and an acceptance of responsibility.” They are one of the first mechanisms to address human rights abuses and are intended to help transform inter-group relationships by marking an endpoint to a history of wrongdoing and to provide a means to move beyond that history.
The apology issued by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 in the House of Commons to those who were gathered, plus representatives of the survivor community, was one of the most important and significant gestures made to the survivors in Canada at that time. It led to a considerable effort on their part to contribute to reconciliation as witnessed by those events that occurred during the work of the TRC.
Apologies themselves cannot remove or undo the pain or loss suffered by survivors and victims’ families, but they can be a meaningful way of recognizing the dignity of victims. They are an important step for a society working towards reconciliation.
In 2015, the International Center for Transitional Justice released a report on apologies and reparations for countries and groups taking steps to address human rights violations. According to that report, apologies can become statements of truth that reverse years of silence or official denial, vindicating the experiences and suffering of victims. They can also mobilize the rest of society to support reparations for victims and help the public understand the need for transitional justice measures, such as a truth commission or putting perpetrators on trial.
Apologies are one of what I call the four big ‘A’s that are part of the reconciliation process. The first is awareness. The second is acknowledgment. The third is apology. The fourth is atonement. Despite the fact that apologies can signal the intent to move towards repairing relationships, it is vital also to recognize that, on their own, they cannot achieve reconciliation, justice or civic trust.
Societal empathy for victims of abuse in residential schools is important. However, this alone will not prevent similar acts of violence from recurring in new institutional forms.
Words of apology will ring hollow if actions fail to produce the necessary social, cultural, political and economic change that benefits Indigenous peoples and all Canadians.
Papal apologies have been issued elsewhere around the world, and the question arises as to whether the circumstances in which they have been given are relevant.
Three papal apologies have been issued for similar accounts of clerical sexual abuse involving children and colonialism as experienced by Indigenous people in Canada.
One was provided, for example, in 2001 for Church-backed “Stolen Generations” boarding schools for Aboriginal children in Australia, and, in that same year, the church issued an apology in China for the behaviour of Catholic missionaries in colonial times.
A third apology, which is of significance and is referenced in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, was issued to Ireland in 2010 to women and children who went to Catholic-run schools.
During a public mass of pardons in 2000, a broad blanket apology was expressed by the Church for the sins of Catholics throughout the ages for violating the rights and ethnic groups of peoples and for showing contempt for their cultures and religious traditions.
Why are those other apologies not good enough, you might ask. While former Pope Benedict XVI made an expression of sorrow for residential schools in 2009, survivors said that did not go far enough when they came to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
They told the commission that they needed to hear government and church officials admit that the cultural, spiritual, emotional, physical and sexual abuse that they suffered in the schools was wrong and should never have happened.
I was told by many survivors during the work that I was participating in that they came to see themselves as the problem, and they believed that embracing their culture and language would condemn them to hell. The work of the TRC and the calls to action were meant to serve as a means to deconstruct that lie because we know for a fact that within the walls of those schools, children were faced with determined efforts to devalue and, ultimately, eradicate their languages, cultures and spirituality.
One of the tragic effects of these measures was that children frequently emerged from the schools with a sense of being caught between two cultures, neither fully at home nor fully accepted in either, and profoundly alienated as a result.
Experts have told us that words of apology alone are insufficient, that concrete actions on both symbolic and material fronts are required. Reparations for human rights abuses and historical injustices must include an apology, financial redress and public education as were committed to in the residential schools settlement agreement.
With this motion, the Pope, as the head of the Catholic Church, has an opportunity to chart a new course in its history, one based upon truth, responsibility and reconciliation to Indigenous peoples in Canada.
I have visited many church congregations across this country and addressed them about the work of the TRC, and many of the people at the community level participating in their congregational efforts have acknowledged the importance of hearing an apology on behalf of their faith.
I encourage the council of Catholic bishops and the Pope to come to Canada and speak directly to survivors to let them know that they were not in the wrong. Thank you.
Hon. Terry M. Mercer (Acting Leader of the Senate Liberals): Senator Sinclair, as a practising Catholic of 72 years, I want to apologize. That’s all I can do myself. But I also want to say publicly how ashamed I am of my church. I’ve been an active Catholic. A long time ago I was a choir boy. My faith has been important in my life. At one time, I would be at mass every day for a long time. I don’t do that anymore, but I still practice my faith at least once a week.
I am ashamed of my church. I am ashamed of the people who run my church. I am ashamed of the Catholics who have allowed the church to do this. I am ashamed of all of us because the sins that were perpetrated upon Aboriginal people in this country, particularly the Aboriginal youth, did not happen in isolation. People knew. People had to know. People were in that community. It’s a shame that they did this.
I should say that I am also ashamed of the management of the Catholic Church in this city; I’m ashamed of the management of the Catholic Church in my own province; I’m ashamed of the management of the Catholic Church in this city because they’re not doing meeting their obligation of reconciliation.
It is a very difficult thing. My mother was a Catholic. My father was an Anglican. The church was very important in our family. My mother was active in the church. My brothers were altar boys when they were younger. God wouldn’t recognize them now.
It is a shame for those of us who are Catholics that every day when we listen to the debates on this subject or hear the news on this subject that we share the guilt, because it’s our faith. Every Sunday when I walk through the doors of whatever Catholic Church I go to, I always ask myself: Why do I keep doing this? Why do I keep going to a church that I’m not proud of? Why do I keep doing that?
I don’t go to the church because of the church but because of my relationship with my God, but it is embarrassing. Someday, if I ever get to meet God face to face, I’m going to ask him how he can allow those people to do that to those young children and how he could allow his church, my church, to do such a terrible job in reconciliation with them in this country.”