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What good is an apology?

The Pope's admission of shame over residential schools stirs up cautious optimism for reconciliation.

I have a confession: I am really bad at making predictions about the future. After discussing current events with my high school students, one will often ask, “Mr. Boone, what do you think will happen?” I always take the bait and then face my students’ teasing when I inevitably get it wrong.

Some of my more recent predictions: Donald Trump will never be elected President of the USA, Justin Trudeau will not win a majority in 2015, we will not have to wear masks during covid, Putin would never launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine . . . you get the point. My students love to point out my poor track record, and I have yet to resist the temptation to give my opinion.

On whether Pope Francis would apologize to the Indigenous people of Canada for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the harm done through Indian Residential Schools, I gave a more cautious response, something like: “I don’t think so, but I certainly hope so, and I hope to God that I am wrong again.”

It was beautiful and moving to hear my students express their own deep desire that Pope Francis would not just acknowledge the harm done by the church, but take responsibility for it by apologizing as well. From the bottom of my heart I thank God that students at Christian schools today are far more familiar with residential schools, colonialism and Indigenous cultural revitalization than the students I taught a generation ago. When I started my career this was all new (and threatening) because we did not have ears to hear what our Indigenous neighbours had been trying to tell us about their collective experiences. Canadian Christian youth today are more open to listening and responding.

A good news day

I have another confession to make: I am a news junkie. Shamefully, I am often more faithful at reading the news than reading Scripture. I cannot seem to drive without ritually tuning in to CBC news, much to the chagrin of my children when they were younger. I’ve learned to expect the daily barrage of negative, sometimes sensationalist headlines, so imagine my surprise on April 1st when good news dominated the headlines: Pope Francis had indeed apologized to the Indigenous delegates gathered in the Vatican.

As I wondered if this was a very distasteful April Fool’s joke, an elderly Indigenous friend texted to say that “her heart was relieved” to know the Pope had apologized. She credited his acknowledgment of shame “to the voices of the lost children in unmarked graves across Canada finally being heard.” While we both expressed our joy, we both also admitted to being skeptical that it would happen. My friend commented that just a few short years ago she had “no hope” any Pope would ever apologize for the harm done at residential schools. While some are scrutinizing and debating the Pope’s apology, let’s not lose sight of the fact that a door has been opened, offering a new way forward for all Canadians and Christians, Catholic or not. Again, thank God the times have changed, and that this Pope is committed to listening and responding in ways that previous popes (and other Christian leaders) have not.

Pope Francis delivered his apology to a delegation of Canadian residential school survivors in the Vatican on April 1, 2022 (CBC News screenshot from YouTube)

Broken trust

While none of the Indigenous friends and colleagues I’ve talked to dismissed the Pope’s apology, all of them were hesitant about getting too excited or accepting it without reservation. Another Indigenous elder told me that the devastating trauma inflicted on her extended family and home community at the (literal) hands of the Catholic church and residential school staff is so real, pervasive and deep that she “does not know what to do with his apology” at this time. Let’s acknowledge that there is real, hard work ahead for all Canadians, whether Catholic or not, Indigenous or not.

We all know that an apology without repentance is not only worthless, but potentially more damaging than if nothing was said at all, especially when it is made by powerful public leaders. Recall the historic and hope-filled moment in June 2008 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a public and moving apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada for the harm done to them through residential schools. I eagerly told my students that nothing would be the same for our country moving forward.

Only one year later at a G20 conference, the same Prime Minister outrageously stated, “Canada has no history of colonialism.” In other words, the apology was more symbolic than sincere, adding insult to injury for Canada’s Indigenous peoples and casting more skepticism on an already traumatized population. Let’s remember Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Luke that we are to consider the cost of building a tower before we set out to build it, lest we be ridiculed for our lack of judgment.

No room for paternalism

Is it any wonder that most Indigenous people are hesitant to get excited over this much-needed, very late, yet apparently sincere apology from the head of the Catholic Church? One Indigenous educator put it this way, “the next steps will show whether he means it or not.” Just what those next steps are has yet to be determined.

One thing is clear: our next moves must be guided by Indigenous people themselves, with no hint of arrogant paternalism. Had we been listening to our Indigenous neighbours (or the teachings of Jesus) earlier in this complicated relationship, we would not be in this situation. I’m thankful that Indigenous people have shown so much patience and resiliency as they waited for this moment in their shared, complicated history with Canada and all Christian churches. May we show the same commitment to patience and resiliency and not rush into easy solutions that originate from outside Indigenous communities.

Generation after generation

In the face of overwhelming pressure from Enbridge to approve the Northern Gateway oil pipeline project, a young Indigenous leader told my students, “We were here thousands of years before Enbridge, and we will be here thousands of years after Enbridge is gone.” Perhaps the same thing could be said of the nation state of Canada, or – at the risk of sacrilege – of the Christian Church itself. Indigenous people have demonstrated that they are here to stay. They have not been absorbed into the body politic. Remarkably, they want to walk with us on a new, shared path into a better, stronger and healthier relationship. May we have the courage to accept in humility and walk with them, for their sake and for ours.
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope in 2013, he chose the name of St. Francis – the first pope to ever do so – echoing the commitment of his namesake for the disenfranchised and marginalized peoples of his own day.

Allow me to close with this prediction: The pathway of reconciliation that lies ahead of us will not be easy, but it will be good.

On that prediction, I am quite confident I’ve got it right.

  • Jonathan teaches at Vernon Christian school in the Okanagan valley, ancestral home of the Syilx people since time immemorial.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for your thoughts and interpretations. I always look forward to your writing to help me make sense of things.

    (I have a prediction, too: that someone will correct your address and place of work. I wish I were wrong about you not living in Smithers, but I’m pretty positive my prediction is correct.)

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