Why is the pope not apologising to Canada’s indigenous people?

Pope Francis remains silent over the abuse indigenous children suffered for 150 years at the hands of Catholic priests.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis meets Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a private audience at the Vatican on May 29, 2017 [Reuters/Ettore Ferrari]

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis is devoted to the interests of the institution he leads.

The institution in question is, of course, quite old, popular, rich, with subsidiaries and 1.2 billion followers across the globe.

The institution’s rules, that the followers must unquestionably abide by, are set out in dogmatic texts, commandments and edicts, including the doctrine that the pope, “acting as supreme teacher … cannot err when he teaches in matters of faith or morals.”

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis knew when he was chosen in a secret conclave by his fellow cardinals in March 2013, that the title was his for life and, that, fortuitously, as “supreme teacher,” he “cannot err” while he manages the Church, comfortably ensconced at its Vatican headquarters.

Pope Francis also knows that, in exchange for such coveted job security and singular infallibility, his main job is to promote and protect the institution’s parochial interests at home and abroad.

Apparently, Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church’s “supreme teacher,” has calculated that it’s not in its interests that he travel to Canada to personally apologise to indigenous peoples for the crimes committed by priests and nuns over more than 150 years against thousands of indigenous children at as many as 80 forced-conversion gulags, euphemistically known as “residential schools.”

The crimes perpetrated at those largely Catholic-run “residential schools” have been documented by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which describes in exhaustive detail how indigenous child after child after child was kidnapped, stuffed into a tiny suit or dress and paraded like a play doll, beaten, fondled, raped, tortured in homemade electric chairs, discarded, abandoned, killed and, ultimately, buried often in unmarked, mass graves. 

In December 2015, the TRC tabled its findings. One of the report’s 94 “calls to action” was a plea to the pope to visit Canada promptly and apologise for the degradations and depravity visited upon so many children, for so many years by so many Catholic “teachers” who faithfully served the “supreme teacher”.


The pope’s response to “call to action” number 58: silence. During an audience with the pope last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, another teacher, implored the supreme teacher to “consider the gesture”. The pope’s response: silence.

Predictably, the supreme teacher who cannot err left it to his surrogates at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to respond finally by letter in late March to indigenous survivors who also believe the pope should apologise.

Stripped of the polite embroidery, the CCCB’s reply was: Look, he’s read the report. He takes it “seriously”. But he’s not going to apologise to any of you and he isn’t obliged to explain why he won’t apologise.

Since they delivered their missive, the bishops have been reminded by politicians, reporters and scripture-quoting columnists that popes have apologised many times, albeit belatedly and grudgingly, for the Church’s many “errors” – to put it charitably.

Records show Pope John Paul II apologised more than 100 times. He apologised for, among other egregious trespasses, the Church’s role in the persecution of Galileo, a devout Catholic, the African slave trade, various burnings at the stake, religious wars, as well as the church’s sins against Jews, heretics, Gypsies, native peoples and women”.

Pope Benedict XVI followed suit, although he attached big asterisks to his apologies by insisting that the mea culpas were intended only to atone for the lamentable actions of individual Christians, not the Church’s institutional culpability. Still, in 2010, he apologised to the countless Irish victims of countless sexual predators in clerical clothing.

And while on a pilgrimage to South America in July 2015, none other than Pope Francis himself apologised for crimes the Catholic Church committed against indigenous peoples during the colonisation of the Americas.

At a gathering of indigenous activists in Bolivia, attended by the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, Pope Francis also “humbly” begged for forgiveness for the “pain and suffering” that the Church has caused in the past.

Despite this recent history of contrition, Pope Francis and his ardent Canadian subordinates remain adamant: There will be no formal apology to the indigenous children who endured, suffered and perished inside the Catholic Church’s conversion-gulags in Canada.


Earlier this month, The New Democratic Party (NDP) attempted to introduce a motion in the House of Commons to try to get Pope Francis to change his obstinate mind and apologise. 

The governing Liberal party said it would support the NDP’s motion. The motion, however, required unanimous consent before it could be debated and voted on. One Conservative Member of Parliament objected, temporarily derailing the motion. 

Canada’s bishops helped stall consideration of the motion by, in part, rewriting history in an official letter, claiming that the “Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the residential schools.”

Not done desecrating the past, Archbishop Richard Gagnon lectured survivors at an Ottawa press conference about the “difference” between the German pontiff’s Irish apology and the Argentinian pontiff’s apology they’re pining for. 

“The Holy Father wrote a letter to the Irish,” Archbishop Gagnon said. “Number 58 specifies the pope comes to Canada within a certain period of time, a very narrow period of time, and give an apology. So, there’s a difference between the two.”

The archbishop’s remarks prompted the indigenous NDP MP who co-sponsored the motion, Romeo Saganash, to say he was disgusted. “I wanted to go throw up,” Saganash said. He wasn’t alone.

Undeterred, Saganash, a survivor, successfully re-introduced his motion on Thursday. By his side, was another survivor, Kind Hearted Eagle Women.

“I’m here, begging the Holy Father, the pope, to walk with us to healing,” she said. “I ask him to walk [with] and have sympathy [for] all indigenous people.” 

Pope Francis will, I suspect, rebuff Kind Hearted Eagle Women’s request even though decency and the historical record demand it. In doing so, the Pope will confirm that he is devoted, above all, to the institution he leads.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.