WARNING: This story contains distressing details
The Pope’s visit to Canada and apology for the role of many church members in Canada’s residential school system has sparked intense discussion over the extent of that apology, its impact for Indigenous peoples and the question: what should be the next priority in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action?
An apology from the Pope was call 58 by the TRC. But many felt what was actually said this week didn’t go far enough, and one of those people is Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In a conversation between Sinclair and his son, Niigaan Sinclair, guest host of a special episode of CBC Radio’s The House, the former judge and senator said the apology had not gone far enough in acknowledging the church’s role in residential schools, including “the fact that it practiced its faith and its doctrines in a way that undermined the very existence of Indigenous people.”
“The Pope’s apology, as good as it was — and I want to acknowledge that it did go a long way … But the pope’s apology failed to take into account that the church itself probably didn’t live up to its own doctrines of respect, kindness and love when it came to how it supported the treatment and encouraged the mistreatment of Indigenous people, not only here in Canada but throughout the world,” Murray Sinclair said.
LISTEN | Find out what Murray Sinclair, former TRC chair, thinks of the Pope’s apology:
CBC News: The House14:47Did the Pope’s apology go far enough?
Pope Francis said this week that he was apologizing for “the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous people.”
On his flight departing Canada on Saturday, the Pope said what took place in residential schools qualified as genocide.
The final TRC report referred to what transpired as “cultural genocide,” though some have argued that the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools means it goes beyond that term.
Murray Sinclair said this week has been a significant moment for reconciliation because of the attention it has received from the broader Canadian public.
Many calls to action remain
The call for an apology by the Pope is just one of the 94 calls to action put forward by the TRC in 2015. Before this week, just 11 calls had been fulfilled according to Eva Jewell, research director of the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led research and education centre at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Jewell said that rather than simply educating Canadians, more attention needs to be focused on calls to action aimed at righting inequities faced by Indigenous people in Canada on issues including child welfare, language and culture, education, health and justice.
“These are areas that there needs to be significant movement in, in order to impact the quality of life for Indigenous peoples and to bring us to a point of equity with Canadians, which I think is the bare minimum for reconciliation.”
On the issue of child welfare, which makes up the first five calls to action, Raven Sinclair, a professor at the University of Regina and herself a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, told The House she’s optimistic about the progress being made.
She said that despite the entrenched nature of the child welfare system, the combination of funding and Bill C-92, which was passed in 2019 and gave jurisdiction to First Nations in relation to child and family services, would allow them to do “amazing things.”
“The powers that be really need to understand that we know what we’re doing, we know how to do it,” she said.
John Borrows, the Loveland chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Toronto, said it was a challenge to fulfil the 18 calls to action related to justice.
He noted two divides: an overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system, and a lack of respect for Indigenous principles of justice.
He said a multi-faceted approach was necessary to address the challenges, but that Indigenous justice systems themselves also required attention.
“If we’re not revitalizing Indigenous systems of justice and law, then it will be impossible to incorporate these issues in the broader system,” he said.
Health care is also a major focus of the TRC calls to action, and Norma Rabbitskin told The House about the importance of call 22, which promotes respect for Indigenous healing practices.
For Rabbitskin, a nurse, the value of that call was clear in the calm and gentleness those traditions brought to the birth of her grandson earlier this year — the first traditional Indigenous birth in decades to take place in Sturgeon Lake First Nation, located just north of Prince Albert, Sask.
“What was really liberating was the opportunity to bring our medicines, our singing, our pipe ceremony to welcome, and also to light that fire, to guide the little spirit down to our Mother Earth,” she said.
Kindness, respect needed going forward, Sinclair says
Murray Sinclair said that in order to meet the challenges presented by the calls to action on child welfare, education, justice, health care and more, it was important for Canadians to engage in the process.
“People who were not alive at the time can’t be held accountable because something wrong happened long before they arrived here,” he said. “They may not be responsible for the past, but they are certainly responsible for the future.”
He also spoke about the much-discussed moment this week when Wilton Littlechild, honorary chief of Ermineskin First Nation, presented the pontiff with a headdress.
Some members of First Nations in Manitoba have criticized that decision. But Murray Sinclair argued it was a symbol of the type of outreach needed most, calling it “an act of incredible kindness, charity, love and respect.”
That gesture was an indication that “now it is time for us to start to treat each other differently,” he said.
“And we have to behave toward each other with more kindness and respect than we have in the past.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.