In July, the Pope visited communities in Canada to apologize to Indigenous peoples for the intergenerational harm caused by the residential school system. His visit exposed mixed emotions across communities from coast-to-coast—and carved out a dedicated space for difficult conversations to unfold on the national stage.
We invited Bonnie Leask, former Director of Indigenous Engagements, and Ryan Eller, Head Strategic Partnerships, to reflect on his visit and what it signals for them as a Cree woman from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and a faith-based leader both dedicated to advancing reconciliation in Canada, the United States, and the world.
From your point of view, what was significant about the Pope’s visit?
BONNIE: It is significant any time a Head of State makes a visit to a community. For the Pope to come to Indigenous lands and say “sorry” is monumental and this visit means a lot of things for different Indigenous people across the lands.
For myself, I am conflicted because personally, I am also angry. I think about my experience as a Cree woman from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and how, still many non-Indigenous people don’t understand the pain and legacy of residential schools...or do not want to. And I think of my grandmother and mushoom (grandfather), who were very influential in my life, and their experiences as residential school survivors. My grandmother was a very staunch Catholic who went to Mass every Sunday and prayed the rosary. For her, the Pope is very much a figure whom she respected and this visit would have meant a lot to her.
So, this reflection drew me to the conclusion that my responsibility here is to take the lead of the survivors and the significance they are associating with his visit. For some, the significance of the Pope’s visit is both symbolic and welcomed. For others, it may be the opposite. But it is their voices who should be at the forefront.
RYAN: As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope represents over 1.3 billion people worldwide. Symbolically, what he says and does is a reflection, at least in the eyes of many, on Christianity as a whole. Whether we Baptists like it or not, we share a common ancestry and, in more recent history, a common heritage of attempted genocide and continued cultural genocide against Indigenous communities.
And yet, despite those practices, many of our kin share the same faith. The church has a long history of valuing reconciliation as a sacrament. To fulfill this theological and communal mandate for reconciliation requires confession (acknowledging our sin while asking forgiveness), penance (contrition and repentance), and then only after that is true reconciliation (the inner relationship between being reconciled with God and our neighbor—in this case our Indigenous neighbors) is possible. In this regard, the Pope’s visit represents the first critical step of confession.
However, what remains to be seen is whether there’s enough true understanding among all people of faith and the powerful systems that the church controls to act in a penitent way. In other words: it’s one thing to pray with our words, and an entire other thing to pray with our actions and organize our institutions, religious or otherwise, so that healing can take place.
The Pope said, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against Indigenous Peoples.” But, asking for forgiveness is just one step. Only time and real action will tell if he leads the church in showing repentance. If it doesn’t, it could be merely making a visit seeking what theologian D. Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.”
Community comes first. What are you hearing, seeing, and feeling from Indigenous peoples and communities nation-wide?
BONNIE: Oh, this is a tough question to answer. As I mentioned above, there’s been a wide array of responses and feelings across First Nation, Inuit, and Métis communities across the country. All are valid in their own right, and I cannot speak to the experiences of others in the same way that I can speak to my own experiences.
So, I will use my community, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, as an example. In the centre of our community is our church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, which has served as a place of connection for community events and gatherings. Our community is small in comparison to other First Nation and yet, Muskeg Lake had over 30 Elder who attended the Lac St. Anne pilgrimage, which the Pope attended.
One of our former leaders, Harry Lafond, is a deacon of the church and stood with the Pope during his Mass at the Commonwealth Stadium — so, even in my own community, people are navigating through the complexity and emotions that come with this grand gesture and what this means for them.
But amongst the different perspectives and responses, one thing is clear: the Pope’s visit opened up lines of communication with people that were not aware of or may have held skepticism about the history of residential schools in Canada. The aftermath of this visit may turn the dial on how we talk about and approach reconciliation in this country. Today, there is a “new” dialogue that is being had at dinner tables—and hopefully at upcoming Masses.
RYAN: A number of my Indigenous friends have expressed incredibly mixed emotions about the visit. On the one hand, the intent behind the apology seems appreciated, but because the attempts for the church and other powerful colonial systems have been so pervasive, many Indigenous folks have expressed feelings of being ignored or erased. So, to be seen and acknowledged is important.
And, by shining a light on the atrocities borne from residential schools and the church’s participation in assimilation efforts, it’s sparking an opportunity to have conversations that otherwise wouldn’t take place. Many people like me who have the privilege of not thinking about the pain caused by these programs daily are provided with an opportunity to learn.
However, I’ve also heard incredibly painful expressions borne out of what I’d consider “cheap symbolism.” When the Pope dawned a headdress, one Indigenous sister could be heard in person (and through media echoed around the world) crying out for justice. To those of us who believe we, and the church, could spend the rest of our lives being about the work of reconciliation and still fall short of healing the irreparable wounds of our ancestors, that moment felt like an act of misguided appropriation.
In Canada, the last residential school closed in 1996. This is not a distant past, and the impact of the residential school system still remains in the present. What can people and groups do to support during this time, and actively change conditions that continue to uphold colonial systems?
BONNIE: Listen! Listen! Listen! The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did so much incredible work around the history of residential schools and its impact and they have many amazing materials that anyone can pick up and learn from. And it's important to do if you are someone who lives off these lands and calls Canada home — and non-Indigenous people, it is your responsibility to learn about this history, advocate for a more just present, and help build a better future.
What does the future of reconciliation look like in Canada? What can the country and the world learn from this, and the potential outcomes to come?
BONNIE: For so long, I have felt unseen and been part of a culture that has had to fight to be visible. Things are changing, and more people are beginning to engage in conversations and understand our cultures—and I think that is leading to greater collective hope, inclusion, and action. I am pleased there is more dialogue happening across the country and frankly among Indigenous peoples around the world about what the road to reconciliation can bring...if we work together.
The traumas inflicted upon Indigenous peoples worldwide by the church can never be undone by an apology alone. To this day, Indigenous peoples continue to experience the residual effects of the violent legacy of settler colonialism. The church’s original Doctrine of Discovery is the very theological underpinning that justified the theft and occupation of land and genocidal acts in the first place.
In the 15th century, through a series of papal bulls—decrees of the Pope—this doctrine was used to promote some of humanity’s most gruesome acts. In doing so, they fundamentally ignored the humanity and rights of fellow sojourners, seeing them as unworthy of their land and even of life itself. This is a very heavy and very real history.
So, the Pope’s visit—and its aftermath—has to be about so much more than acknowledging the harm that the church inflicted upon Indigenous children in residential schools. It must be about reversing course from the more than five centuries of harm. And if serious, it would involve considerations of giving back land, and supporting Indigenous peoples’ efforts for sovereignty, cultural health, and education, and more. At minimum, it would also include rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery.