One of the biggest tragedies — aside from the crimes themselves — of what happened in Canada’s residential schools is that many of those who suffered mistreatment while forced to live in the church-run boarding schools have not lived to see justice. But, after a visit with Pope Francis in the Vatican on 28 March, the country’s Inuit leaders feel there may yet be time for at least some of them to get what they so far have been denied.
Created in the 1884 and in existence until 1947, residential schools were a network of boarding schools. Funded by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs and administered primarily by the Catholic church, their aim was to prepare young indigenous children for assimilation into white Canadian society. An estimated 150,000 children were removed from their communities and cut them off from their culture.
The effect of separating young people from their families and depriving them of their ancestral languages has caused irreparable harm, both for the individuals and for their communities. As if that were not tragedy enough, many were physically and sexually abused while living at the schools.
Acknowledgement of the wrongdoings began in the 1980s, and the church issued the first of what has been multiple apologies in 1991. The most recent, given last year by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, will, victims and their representatives hope, be the second to last.
The purpose of the trip to the Vatican was to seek a formal apology from the church for the harm caused by the residential-school system and to invite the Pope to come to Canada to deliver it. Their inspiration for this is a 2015 apology he delivered in Bolivia for the “grave sins” the church committed against the native Americans of Latin America “in the name of God”. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up in 2008 to document the impact of the residential-school system, has said the same gesture is necessary in Canada as well.
Both sides discuss what they hope the meeting will achieve in the wispy terms of religion and diplomacy: one of the goals is a “shared path forward”, though comments made by the Inuit delegation after the meeting (see video below) suggests this means the Inuit see value in the work of the church.
Such speech belies the gravity of the matter, as well as the immediacy of the specific issues indigenous groups said they asked the Pope to help with during their meeting, however. One of them is restitution. In 2006, the church in Canada agreed it would pay C$25 million (€18 million) in restitution, but, to date, only C$3 million has been paid. That is a sign to some that the church is not really committed to making amends, particularly when there are plenty of examples of church spending on other big-ticket items during the same period. In one instance, the diocese of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was found to have built a C$28 million cathedral while only paying C$34,650 to residential-school survivors.
For Inuit leaders, there is a more pressing matter: they would like to see Johannes Rivoire, a priest said to be living in France, tried in Canada on charges that he sexually assaulted Inuit children while working at residential schools in the hamlets of Naujaat and Arviat between 1968 and 1970. Fr Rivoire, now 97, skipped Canada in 1993, and, during the meeting, the Pope was asked to convince him to return to stand trial, or, if that does not work, that he lobbies to have him extradited or tried in France. The lord may work in mysterious ways, but the Inuit would prefer his right hand on Earth to act a little more manifestly on their behalf.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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