R.C. Indian Residential School, Fort Resolution, NWT | Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada

Apologies to Native people

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sightings is sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up to get Sightings in your inbox twice per week (on Mondays and Thursdays). You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

One would expect a headline beginning “A Pope Given to Apologies…” to be followed by a journalistic story which is likely to quicken the interest of readers. Pope Francis has made many headlines over stories which focus on the recipients of such apologies. He has apologized to people wounded by the Catholic Church in a variety of countries on various continents, whenever the church has been a conspicuously errant body, and to victims of general injustice. But had I finished typing the headline from the New York Times last Tuesday (April 24), I envision that we would have lost the interest of many potential readers. Why?

Let’s finish the line: the Pope “…Has Nothing for Indigenous Canada.” I do not want to suggest that citizens of the nation just south of the Canadian border do not care about Canada, or that non-Indigenous people would heartlessly ignore the Indigenous anew. The case is simpler than that: most of us here in the U.S. do not track many kinds of Canadian stories, though the plight of the Indigenous there or anywhere demands and deserves regular attention. Therefore, whatever measure of interest readers have on this subject, I hope they will be quickened to pick up on what the Times reported, as did many Catholic papers.

To the point (we won’t publish detailed statistics to enhance it; please trust us and all who report on this): the rate of suicides among the Indigenous population in Canada is alarming, and we “natives” of cities distant from Ottawa, the source of the headlined story, have a responsibility to take notice, even if we are not close to Native people. It would be possible to turn this column and others like it into an essay which, one hopes, might inspire reflection and change. We know that readers and citizens at large are being called to repent—does that word have a place in commentary on the news?—and revisit bad old stories, then compete with each other as mopers. If we know that, why pile on with another case history?

At this point I’ll draw once more on the words of a philosopher who is no stranger to this column, Max Scheler, genius writer on repentance as “change of heart.” Scheler begins by reminding us that the past is past, gone, irretrievable. Dwelling on what the forefathers of Canadian Catholics did through centuries of colonization and forced schooling may inform us, but by itself changes little. Second, bringing the case close to home, dwelling on what “I” or “we” have done to Native people is not all that creative. Scheler says what is needed is a “change of heart” in anyone who moans, not “Alas! What did I do?”—though that is a partially creative next step. No, Scheler goes further, into full creativity territory, suggesting one ask, “Alas! What kind of person am I that I am capable of doing that bad thing?” and make efforts to change from there on.

Writers and preachers and confessors in biblical traditions (though not these alone), risk all on getting us to ask and answer that final question, individually and collectively—in terms of nation, race, church, cultural context. Pope Francis has been strongly attacked of late for not responding to urgings that he apologize for what his church had done to Indigenous people. He knows how horrible that was, as well over a hundred thousand children were sorely wounded, many of them killed, by their experience in cruel residential schools with their abusive practices. But his career-long effort shows him to be acting and speaking so as to help bring about a “change of heart” in person and society, in new ways in new days. And the spirits of those Native Canadian victims, if they could be embodied, might find reason to leap and clap and dance. They would not have time to mope.


  1. The notion of Satan still exists in Christian theology.

    Christian theology continues to invest in legal training, in the hope of resuming control over the Western legal system once again.

    For these reasons, an apology is meaningless.

  2. Not sure why Martin Marty fails to mention that the exact same atrocities were present south of the Canadian border as well, and that the US government funded these atrocities with tax dollars and in contravention of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. If an apology is due First Nations and American Indian communities, and it is in fact over due, not only the Pope, but every leader of every Christian denomination as well as the political leadership of both national governments should be signatories to that apology. And it still won’t be enough.

  3. The phrase “in contravention of the First Amendment” requires a bit of explanation.

  4. Exactly how does “Christian theology continues to invest in legal training”?

  5. I am willing to reword “training.”

    At any rate, this is the minimum I have observed. When a judge is appointed to the US Supreme Court, a few churches do issue statements praising the choice of this judge.

    The churches are not connected to this judge at a personal level, i.e., the churches are not saying, “We are proud that the new judge was baptized at our church” or “We are proud that this judge was married at our church” or “We are proud that this judge’s children were baptized at our church.”

    Rather, the churches are saying “Our positions on some current affairs coincide with this judge’s way of thinking.” Why is a church interested in a judge’s intellectual positions? Why does a church want to behave like an intellectual? When you reflect on these questions, then you realize that the phrase “God’s Plan” is intended to be a kind of constitution. In a sense, God is the original constitutional expert, the original Jefferson, the original Madison.

    At any rate, several churches are keen followers of current affairs, including law. I think they are intellectually well prepared to run law colleges, if Westerners decide to reverse the Age of Enlightenment.

  6. you’re right, i just threw it out there. even at the time, many in both public and private leadership positions felt as though having the US federal government hire clergy to teach American Indian children at boarding schools with an overt “religious education” component was a violation of the establishment clause, which of course, it was.

  7. Your observation that on the appointment of a judge comments like “Our positions on some current affairs coincide with this judge’s way of thinking.” is a true of the left as of the right, of people with religious affiliations as with people who absolutely detest religion.

    The reason why is that judges have become lawmakers, legislators, rather than law appliers.

    No, lots of things are not decided by judicial fiat.

    In theory legislation is done by legislatures, and the resulting laws are applied by courts to fact duly ascertained.

    When a court steps aside from the law as it exists and is written and reasons to establishing new law based on this that or the other, it is legislating by judicial fiat.

    It is doing that whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision.

    As one of our sitting justices wrote the job of judges should be “to apply the law as it is, focusing backward, not forward, and looking to text, structure, and history to decide what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question would have understood the law to be – not to decide cases based on their own moral convictions or the policy consequences they believe might serve society best.”

    “American liberals have become addicted to the courtroom, relying on judges and lawyers rather than elected leaders and the ballot box, as the primary means of effecting their social agenda” and as a result they are “failing to reach out and persuade the public”.

    American liberals are therefore circumventing the democratic process on issues like gay marriage, school vouchers, and assisted suicide, and this has led to a compromised judiciary, which is no longer independent, leading to their “overweening addiction” to using the courts for social debate, which is “bad for the nation and bad for the judiciary”.

    So, what has occurred since the 1930s is that appointments of Federal judges and Supreme Court justices has become akin an election, with various contingents lobbying for their appointee who – they believe – will “see it their way”.

    In our system religion has the same access to the public square as everyone else, so it is no surprise that religious figures or denominations would voice an opinion on judicial appointments.

  8. Of course white children in public schools were also getting “an overt ‘religious education'” at that time.

  9. not all. many teachers used scripture and some public schools had common prayers before Weiss v. District Board (1890) for Catholic opposition to Protestant use of the King James Bible, then with Engel v. Vitale (1962) prayer and Bible reading in public schools was ended. BUT, boarding schools were forcing baptisms and giving specific private school-style religious instruction. very different. not to mention the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse these Native children suffered, which is the point of my reply to Marty.

  10. I believe that the pope is reluctant to apologize because the alleged actions occurred up to 100 years ago. His other apologies are for relatively current situations.

    He does not want the RC church to incur the costs of additional law suits, either, if he tacitly admits that where there was smoke, there was fire.

    The Canadian gov’t is currently debating whether to ask the pope directly to come to Canada to apologize, Interestingly, the motion failed by a lone dissenter, a young Jewish MP who insists upon the division between church and state. May he hold the line as this hapless discussion continues.

    Another thing to consider is the vallidity of the allegations of abuse. Canada provided millions of dollars in compensation and all Indigenous people had to do was show up; there was no burden of proof, no records checked. The carrot was dangled and they showed up ravenous.

    It is statistically impossible that 3/4 of the children who attended would have been abused by people in the service of God. Think about it. Committed people, priests and nuns who felt called to help, often young people who sought to make things better, not worse, for needy children, why would they have done these things?

    Untoward events may have happened, yes, but not to the extent or brutality that is taken at face value in Canada where we paid out thousands to each individual who, rather suprisingly, recounted similar abuse in similar language. Many were coached through their testimonies by lawyers who billed the government millions.

    The pope is correct in saying that apologies have taken place and that now, it is up to Canadian churches to handle things.

    Would that these churches had had the gumption to stand up and question the allegations; Canada would be a better country for it.

  11. Definition of indigenous

    1 : produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment ·indigenous plants ·the indigenous culture

    2 : innate, inborn ”


    Generally referred to as Aboriginal peoples in Canada when looking at the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples collectively”

    Does the word savages fit said people after all many Indian tribes enslaved members of other tribes and scalping was in vogue before the Spanish, French and English arrived with their guns and priests. Had the indigenous had guns would they have enslaved said colonists? Tough call but I am not about to apologize to any of them nor will I sign over my property to them. Nor should the Pope!!

    Or should we give compensation and apologies to the families of the first homo sapiens who exited Africa some ~200,000 years ago and spread across the globe? Hmm, hey I am in that group as we are all. Apology accepted!!

  12. Have you personally spoken with any of the survivors? I have, and don’t doubt the extent of the abuse for a moment.

  13. The abuse was not ancient history. The last of the residential schools only closed in 1996.

    The abuse was systemic. In a deliberate attempt to cut children off from their culture and indoctrinate them in Christian religions, children were taken from their families and communities, forbidden to speak their own languages, forced to cut their hair, and forced to convert. Physical and sexual abuse was rampant – because that is what happens when you have a totally powerless group of children and people in charge of them who are authoritarians with no respect for their rights. There was so little respect for their lives that the death rate was unacceptably high. Children in some schools were even subject to experiments where they were deliberately starved.

    The legacy of the abuse continues to actively cause harm today. I have clients who were abused and who suffer from PTSD. When you have entire communities where families bonds were deliberately broken and where a huge number of adults were traumatized, you get epidemic levels of substance abuse and people that are often struggling so much that it affects their own parenting. (I am a family and child protection lawyer, so this affects my clients and a former employee. My husband also spent time as a medical resident on a couple of reserves in Northern Ontario and was horrified by what he learned.)

    You seem passionate about opposing religious beliefs in other threads. This was a long-standing program that quite deliberately broke down children and their families in order to convert them and the massive harm done has been investigated and documented. Why suddenly defend the Catholic Church?

  14. First, there should be no pope as his position fails rigorous historic testing.

    Second, FEAR, SHAME and GUILT and COVER IT ALL UP, a standard response across the board with the “walking with god clerics” now forever walking with the common man–

    Obviously ordination in any religion is not assurance of good behavior !!!!!

    Neither is coronation!!! e.g. Henry VIII, King David.

    Neither is marriage as 50% of those men convicted of pedophilia are married.

    Neither is being elected president of the USA!! e.g. Billy “I did not have sex with that girl” Clinton, John “Marilyn Monroe” Kennedy” and now Trump.

    Neither is possessing super athletic skill!!! e.g. Tiger “I am so sorry for getting caught” Woods.

    Neither is being an atheist or pagan or football coach or doctor for the USA gymnastics’ team since pedophilia is present in all walks of life.

    If someone is guilty of a crime in this litany of “neithers” they should or should have been penalized as the law dictates to include jail terms for pedophiliacs (doctors, priests, rabbis, evangelicals, boy scout leaders, married men/women, football coaches), divorce for adultery (Clinton, Kennedy, Woods), jail terms for obstruction of justice (Paterno et al Clinton, Cardinal Law, maybe Trump) or child endangerment (Paterno in abstentia, Sandusky et al, Lynn) and the death penalty or life in prison for murder (“Kings David and Henry VIII).

    Hopefully, the MeToo movement will start to clean it all up!!!!

  15. “Does the word savages fit said people after all many Indian tribes enslaved members of other tribes and scalping was in vogue before the Spanish, French and English arrived with their guns and priests. Had the indigenous had guns would they have enslaved said colonists?”

    Holy f-in shit. They were savages (all of them) and they would of defend themselves against the colonists. So to hell if we stole their land, killed the people, destroying many nations and then committed cultural genocide.

    I do not care. What a heartless person. Blame the victim to the nth degree

  16. I can’t believe what I am reading from some so called rational conclusions.

    You are spot on. This is most horrible tragedy lasting centuries. Stealing land, genocide against the people, then cultural genocide against the people.

    Many individual distinct tribes now no longer exist. Reduced to a near generic First Nation. Just like blacks who were slaves. Imagine if Europe was reduced to a generic European.

    This person is heartless

  17. Let’s say that a multinational corporation, with many locations, did some atrocious things. Obviously, individual employees would be subject to the law….but the corporation itself would also have some responsibility for mistreatment that took place, esp. if some of the mistreatment was as per corporate policy, and if the corporation failed to provide any oversight or mechanism to prevent other problems.

    I don’t really care what the basis of papal authority is. FWIW, he is the head of the Catholic Church. I don’t question how CEOs are chosen for a corporation either, we just recognize that they have the top position. It is an organization that did harm to children, the impact of that abuse is still harming children, the organization is still powerful and wealthy, and justice demands both an apology and compensation from that organization.

  18. I’m going to get really specific about harms done, because I know that some people will tune out words like cultural genocide.

    In 2011, 7% of kids 14 and under in Canada were Aboriginal, but 48% of kids in foster care were Aboriginal.

    The life expectancy of Aboriginal Canadians is 15 years shorter than it is for non-Aboriginal Canadians.

    Suicide rates are documented to be higher among residential school survivors, and higher still when multiple generations attended the schools. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28355491

    Aboriginal children were dying in these schools. Often, they were buried in unmarked graves. The death rate was at least twice, and at times up to 5x higher than the death rate for children who didn’t attend these schools. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/missing-children-unmarked-burials-a-legacy-of-residential-schools/article27772367/

    Children were subject to medical experiments, including deliberately withholding nutrition from malnourished students, all done without anything resembling consent or basic respect for human rights: https://globalnews.ca/news/2503875/what-happened-to-jim-experiments-on-canadas-indigenous-populations/

  19. Thanks for making this known to people on here.

  20. You make a number of incorrect assertions – alleged actions historically I believe are well documented in terms of the high rate of death as to the contributing factors, and the high number of residential school fires In terms of testimony as to abuse, there wee 6 years of hearings which found common experience giving credibility to claims. And even later, actual criminal convictions but not until a time when criminal victimization claims were treated differently in the justice system. So Grolllier Hall had dormitory supervisors convicted of sexual assault. This shouldn’t be a surprise though – Mt. Cashel is another classic institutional example where abuse was alleged and investigated – including the Bishop. The Catholic church operated up to 60% of residential schools.

    My children have taught at 3 first nations communities and in 2 of them, school bells do not sound because of the impact on the sense of personal safety or well being for elders in the community. Sp when you say coached testimony, I see people who live with the consequences of their experience. And that is not coached. I also know that others did not tell all because they were ashamed.

    There is a lot to apologize for – starting with supporting a system that took children away from their homes and parents

  21. Hey, Manifest Destiny and Survival Of The Fittest.

    End of story.

  22. The apology from the Catholic Church should be written on toilet paper.

    Care to venture a guess as to what it is written in ?

  23. If someone attacks you for your identity, or perhaps kills your family

    Don’t expect any sympathy from anyone. Survival of the fittest.

  24. Apologies should come from those who took the actions.

    How many are still alive and do you have a current address list?

  25. Native peoples who made it big time by being ruthless conquerors:

    The Macedonians led by Alexander the Great

    The Romans led by the Caesar deities

    The Mongols of the Steppes led by Genghis Khan and his offspring- ruled almost half the world

    The English, French and Spanish empires led by autocratic, divine right kings and queens

    The Germanic Tribes led by Hitler

    The Russian Tribes led by Stalin

    If you were affected by any of these, submit your claims to the current rulers of said countries.

  26. The Catholic church would know that information. And there is a difference between individual responsibility and responsibility as a corporate entity. Public acknowledgement says we won’t do that again. A public confession of wrong-doing – unintentional or otherwise is particularly appropriate for a church that mandates regular confession by believers. Besides forgiveness is difficult if there is no admission of wrong-doing, This is a needed step in the healing process.

  27. Perhaps someone in the Catholic Church would have that information, or perhaps not given that there are over 5,000 bishops with over a billion faithful. The term “Catholic Church” could mean just about anything.

    This sad pathology of demanding public statements doesn’t ensure “we won’t do that again”.

    Unless the perpetrator his or herself is in front of you, admission of wrongdoing is a charade.

  28. But in this instance there was both individual wrong-doing as well as wrong-doing on a broader level where the church operated schools – over 60% of them – impacting large numbers of children and their families and over a sustained period of time.. Other churches have apologized for their role/involvement in the residential school system beginning in 1993. For younger people who have grown up in communities where the face of Christianity is a Catholic one, that apology is even more important.

  29. Yes, the notion that churches can apologize is all the rage.

    I believe it to be silly.

  30. Misplaced Altruism, no doubt. One of the sad realities of Christian Evolutionism.

Leave a Comment