OTTAWA (CCN) — A House of Commons debate on a revised motion to invite Pope Francis to apologize for Indian residential schools heard no dissenting voices April 26.
The motion by NDP MP Charlie Angus of the Timmins-James Bay, Ont., riding will be voted on May 1 and is expected to pass, if not unanimously, by an overwhelming majority.
MPs from both sides of the aisle voiced their desire for a papal apology as called for in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Call to Action #58.
Absent from the fray was Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, of the Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., riding, who had refused unanimous consent on a similar motion by Angus April 18 that had called on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to invite the pope.
Genuis had objected to the previous motion out of concerns for the separation of church and state and for religious freedom in having Parliament instruct the Catholic Church on how to carry out reconciliation efforts.
The new motion left out the CCCB and appealed directly to Pope Francis, inviting him to “participate” with Canadians in a journey of reconciliation by responding to the TRC Call to Action #58.
Angus described the debate as “a historic moment for the Parliament of Canada,” noting Parliament had created the TRC to examine the evidence and the Commission found “the policies of the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church at the time constituted a genocide.”
While the wording of the motion was softened, with help from the Liberal government, Angus continued to take aim at Canada’s Catholic bishops, whom he has blamed for the pope’s decision not to come to apologize.
“I want to say that I have been appalled by the line I heard from the Canadian bishops,” he said. “They have tried to evade their role in working with us on reconciliation. We will talk today about the collusion of the federal government and the church. They have followed a pattern time and time again of defending, covering up, and hiding for each other. It all comes back to liability. It all comes back to money.”
“Does anyone think the survivors are here for money?” he asked, insisting they were not.
Angus expressed confidence the pope “is capable of understanding the importance of this motion, because he has a vision of reconciliation and justice for all.”
Minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett welcomed Angus’ motion and said she was “pleased to have worked co-operatively with him on some of the language.”
“Our government also wants to take this opportunity to show that reconciliation is not a partisan issue,” she said.
“The residential school system was a systemic plan to remove indigenous children from their homes, families, and cultures, and to facilitate the stated policy of ‘killing the Indian in the child,’ ” she said. “Students endured unconscionable physical and mental abuse, and generations of indigenous peoples were left emotionally scarred and culturally isolated.”
An estimated 150,000 indigenous children attended residential schools over a period about 100 years, and the TRC estimated 6,000 of them died, she said.
Bennett pointed out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had already formally requested an apology. She said she had written to the CCCB offering to facilitate a meeting with survivors so the bishops could “personally hear what an apology would mean to them and how crucial it is to reconciliation in Canada.”
The Conservative critic for Indigenous Affairs, Cathy McLeod, said she would support the motion, though she noted the “need to respect the independence of religious organizations and their activities.”
“Some people say that Parliament is asking for an apology and that apologies should come from the heart,” she said. “Absolutely, apologies should come from the heart, and they can come often.”
She pointed out the motion is “an expression of how Parliament feels,” one she hopes the pope will hear when he makes his decision. She stressed the motion is an invitation.
“An invitation is very different from a direction,” she said.
McLeod also challenged the government’s record in its promise to implement all 94 of the TRC’s Calls to Action, of which 45 are under the jurisdiction of the federal government.
“If my colleague looks at the CBC tracker in terms of the job the Liberals are doing, he will see that there are many on which there has been no action, and the Liberals have had a number of years,” McLeod said. “I would not want to see communities disappointed again by an enormous commitment but little on the delivery.”
“I think Canada has made very little progress when it comes to reconciliation,” said NDP MP Georgina Jolibois, a Dene who represents the northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River. “We see evidence of that in the justice system. Families continue to be hurt. Funding is cut to First Nations. The two per cent cap the prime minister promised to cut is still in place.”
“In reserves across Canada, infrastructure for drinking water is still an issue,” she said. “There are issues around housing for First Nations, employment, and youth opportunities, and the list goes on.”
Liberal MP Dan Vandal, a Métis representing the Saint Boniface-Saint Vital riding in Manitoba, and a member of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs committee, disputed McLeod’s position, saying the government is “fully committed to implementing all of them.”
He noted the committee is examining the TRC’s call to implement to United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
“We have to take the time to do it properly,” Vandal said. “It would be impossible to do all 94 calls to action within the first mandate, so this is a process that is going to continue well into the second mandate.”