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Indigenous Leaders React to the Pope’s Apology

‘I ended up getting up and shouting out, “Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery… Renounce the papal bull… and the genocide,”’ says Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson.

Andrea Smith 28 Jul

Andrea D. Smith is a regular Tyee contributor. Reach her by email.

Indigenous leaders across the country are not impressed with the Pope’s apology, which took place in Maskwacis, Alberta on Monday.

While they have voiced gratitude for the trip the Pope made to make the apology, many believe the apology itself fell short.

Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Indian Band, who is also secretary-treasurer of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, is one of these leaders.

Chief Wilson attended the event, listening intently to Pope Francis as he spoke Monday. But she couldn’t help feeling put off — and even angered — by the words he used as he made his apology.

“You know, he said he was really sorry, but he still didn’t accept the role of the church,” she said. “He didn’t acknowledge it, in the residential school system. And he was still saying ‘those Christians, or those that did that to the kids...’ You know, not saying it was the Catholic Church.”

“I just couldn’t help it. Seeing all of this that was absent and denied. I ended up getting up and shouting out, ‘Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery… Renounce the papal bull… and the genocide,’” Wilson said.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been a hot topic recently. There have been calls from other Indigenous leaders for this policy to be renounced, too.

According to a 2018 Assembly of First Nations report, the Doctrine of Discovery is the result of a series of “papal bulls,” the first of which was signed in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, which gave Christian colonizers permission to claim any land they discovered for their monarchs and rulers that was not already occupied by other Christians. The 2018 report called for the doctrine to be revoked.

“What the Doctrine of Discovery did was to assert the white supremacy and dominance that led to not only the land theft by dispossessing us, but justification under the church for what eventually became genocidal policies,” said Chief Wilson, referencing policies like residential schools, the Indian Act, and other laws that separated Indigenous people from their families, communities, cultures and lands.

She said she has “mixed emotions” in general about Monday’s events, given that so many residential school survivors never lived to see this day, including her father.

She also feels a trip to the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc territory would have been meaningful, though it was not included on the Pope’s itinerary.

“Respectfully, I think he really should have made more of an effort to get to Tk'emlúps, because that’s where all the mass graves and burial sites were found,” she said. “The 215. There’s a lot of significance in that.”

The Pope is facing Regional Chief Terry Teegee. Regional Chief Teegee, whose back is towards the camera, gives the pope a long wooden stick.
Regional Chief Terry Teegee gifts a talking stick to the Pope on Monday, July 25. Photo courtesy of the BC Assembly of First Nations.

Terry Teegee, the regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, also told The Tyee that the Pope’s apology, though welcomed, leaves something to be desired.

Regional Chief Teegee was able to have a brief meeting with the Pope. Regional Chief Teegee presented the Pope with a talking stick that was given to a former Chief of the Carrier Sekani in the 2000s. At that time, the leadership of a Caribbean Indigenous nation asked the former Chief to give it to the then-Pope when he had the chance. That never happened. The responsibility was passed on to Regional Chief Teegee, who gave it to Pope Francis Monday.

Regional Chief Teegee said he was asked to give the talking stick to the Pope, in order to “remind the Pope that what that talking stick signified was the first place that was colonized in the Americas, the Caribbean in 1492, when the first explorers came here and literally caused devastation to Indigenous peoples.”

Regional Chief Teegee points to the subsequent enslavement and genocide of Indigenous peoples, with wars and disease.

“Colonization in many respects equated to the death of Indigenous people, not only physical, but the death of their languages and cultures. So that’s basically the message I conveyed to him,” he said.

After receiving the talking stick and hearing what Regional Chief Teegee had to say, Pope Francis said he understood what was being shared with him, thanked him, and asked Regional Chief Teegee to pray for him “on his journey.” The lineup of people wanting to greet the Pope was large behind Regional Chief Teegee, so their time was short, and the Pope’s response was minimal as a result, he said.

The apology itself is “an important early and first step,” for Regional Chief Teegee. But, he said, he now wants to see actions follow the Pope’s words — including denouncing and repealing the Doctrine of Discovery, honouring the commitment to compensate residential school survivors, transparently sharing documents and records relating to residential schools, and repatriating Indigenous artifacts from the Vatican to their rightful owners in the Americas and Africa.

“I think those steps would be necessary to really enact the apology,” Regional Chief Teegee said.

In addition to Chief Wilson and Regional Chief Teegee, a quick scour of Twitter reveals similar sentiment from other notable Indigenous people and leaders.

AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald expressed dismay in a July 22 letter to the Archbishop Richard W. Smith that people securing tickets online for the mass in Edmonton were prompted to donate to the Catholic Church.

Chief Archibald was also hopeful she could talk to survivors in a public address but was informed the day before the ceremony that she would not be given this opportunity. (Chief Archibald, the AFN’s first female Chief, was recently suspended from her duties in what she has called a “coup.”)

A letter from July 25 shares what she was planning to say.

In it, she writes that she attends the apology with “a great deal of conflict.” She has immediate family, including her mother and sister, who attended residential school. Her sister died while there. She writes that she is reluctant to have any contact with the church.

She also emphasized the importance of the Doctrine of Discovery and asked the Pope to “formally revoke this vile document.”

“More than 150,000 children were sent to what I no longer call schools; I call them what they were, institutions of assimilation and genocide. Schools don’t have graveyards,” she writes.

She goes on to say that her mother was a traditional Cree woman as well as a devoted Catholic, who would have accepted the Pope’s words of apology, as many survivors are now. She acknowledges that it is part of healing for some. She then ends her letter stating she cares deeply for the survivors, but “will remain cautious and critical of the church. “

Sen. Murray Sinclair also acknowledged that the apology held some significance for survivors, and offered some healing — but bypassed any real blame.

“The Holy Father’s statement has left a deep hole in the acknowledgement of the full role of the Church in the Residential School system, by placing blame on individual members of the Church. It is important to underscore that the Church was not just an agent of the state, nor simply a participant in government policy, but was a lead co-author of the darkest chapters in the history of this land,” Sinclair wrote.

He goes on to say that “reconciliation requires action, not passiveness,” and that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for actions to help restore culture, beliefs and traditions, and failure to do this only continues to perpetrate the harm.

“For the children and descendants of Survivors, it is not enough that you have stopped abusing them, you must act to help them recover, as well as commit to never doing this again,” he writes.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a major hurdle to any reconcilation efforts, he added.

Mi’kmaq lawyer Pam Palmater wrote on Twitter, “The Pope and Catholic Church must officially, fully and by whatever legal and religious means necessary, rescind, repeal, revoke, withdraw and publicly condemn genocidal #DoctrineOfDiscovery and take whatever actions necessary to make reparations for harms caused.”

The Tyee shared Cindy Blackstock’s powerful letter on Tuesday — a “To Do” list for the Pope now that he has made the official apology.

She elaborated for The Tyee, stating that apologies in Canada have been too often used to “quell public outrage” — but are not followed by the necessary action, so abuse and injustice continue.

Her letter was intended to ensure the Pope is held truly accountable, and so his apology “is not just another empty apology.”  [Tyee]

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