Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations, currently living in Brantford, Ontario.
When I heard that Justin Trudeau was going to ask the Pope for an official apology for the Catholic Church’s participation in residential schools, it was easy for me to dismiss it.
This is the same man whose government is currently battling a court decision that made it easier for residential school survivors of sexual assault to receive compensation. This is the same man whose government continues to racially discriminate against Indigenous youth by underfunding their health and social services, despite court orders. This is the same man who campaigned on fostering “nation-to-nation” relationships with Indigenous peoples, yet approved two controversial pipelines without batting an eye. Who is he to lecture anyone on making things right with Indigenous people?
But as a friend pointed out, that Papal apology is likely something that many residential school survivors have been waiting far too long to hear. For survivors, forgiveness is difficult when the institutions you’re trying to forgive don’t acknowledge there was anything to forgive in the first place.
While there is no singular person who can speak on behalf of all residential school survivors, the Pope can – and does – speak for the entire Catholic Church. It’s no secret that Catholicism has never had Indigenous peoples’ best interests in mind. In fact, the papal bulls that instituted the concepts of terra nullius and the “doctrine of discovery” effectively gave Catholic Europeans permission to take land from Indigenous peoples as they saw fit. This line of thought is what enabled colonialism in the first place, and it’s the reason why British Columbia exists despite being largely unceded land. In other words, the Catholic Church gave permission for our dispossession and genocide.
While I don’t expect the Pope to apologize for that one any time soon, there’s a chance he might apologize for residential schools. And if his apology gives even a moment’s peace to a single residential school survivor, then Mr. Trudeau deserves thanks for his effort.
I know, I know. I just complained about Trudeau, and now I’m thanking him. This type of nuance may be confusing to some non-Indigenous Canadians, who liken us to mobs, consider us constantly angry, or lift up one Indigenous voice in an attempt to silence and discredit all others.
Let me clarify something that seems to confuse many Canadians about Indigenous peoples: Though there is a term that one can use to group us all together – in this case, Indigenous – that does not mean that we all share the same opinions, any more than Canadians themselves all share the same opinions. How many political parties make up Canada’s government? How many different candidates run for leadership of those parties? Clearly Canadians are not a homogenous group in a constant state of consensus.
If you’re willing to accept that all Canadians don’t always agree, it shouldn’t be that hard to accept that the same holds for Indigenous peoples. Residential school survivors have always been able to speak for themselves. The problem is that Canadians haven’t always been willing to listen. It was only in 2010 that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, finally giving residential school survivors the opportunity to speak their truths.
Despite the TRC report, which included a 200-page section focused exclusively on the experiences of residential school survivors titled The Survivors Speak, it would seem some Canadians are still not willing to listen. Canadians like Senator Lynn Beyak and columnist Barbara Kaycontinue to cite the positive experiences of some residential school survivors. This, in turn, downplays the traumatic, devastating experiences of others, and cherry-picks bright spots as though the existence of some positivity could excuse the overwhelming darkness in Canada’s history.