In the golden-crested white hall of Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec, Pope Francis sits in front of church leadership. He shuffles through his papers, reciting a homily that’s both soft and authoritative. The head of the Catholic Church tells Canadian bishops, priests and seminarians that Indigenous Peoples who practise their cultures, languages and spiritualities have the face of God within them.
That moment on July 28 was remarkable for Niigaan Sinclair, Anishnaabe scholar and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.
“He was basically saying our cultures have value,” Sinclair told Canada’s National Observer.
“That is a remarkable change in over 500 years of Catholic doctrine.”
Yet despite this breakthrough, Sinclair was frustrated by the papal visit. There were elements of hope, but he says he had to search for them.
For instance, some Indigenous Peoples were upset by missed opportunities for the Catholic Church to engage with Indigenous cultures during the papal visit, particularly during the Pope’s open-air mass in Edmonton and his visit to Lac Ste. Anne.
“The Catholic Church is like an aircraft carrier — you can only move it an inch. And when you move it that inch, you’re excited by it, but it’s still only an inch,” Sinclair says.
Sinclair speaks to a cautious optimism for change within an organization known for its ancient traditions and, at times, slow action. For instance, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action asked the Pope to apologize within a year — it took seven.
Still, with the papal visit organized, orchestrated and executed by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), there’s reason to give some credit where it’s due, Sinclair says.
But that doesn’t mean the accountability needs to end.
“Hopefully, they will do more than a public relations stunt.”
The CCCB told Canada’s National Observer it has heard the call from survivors and families to heal the traumas Indigenous Peoples have suffered because of residential schools, including appeals to release related documents and records, return Indigenous artifacts housed at the Vatican, affirm the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples and financially support initiatives that advance healing and reconciliation.
The organization says it plans to update its reconciliation action plan during the conference’s national plenary assembly this fall.
Many Indigenous Peoples have also explicitly asked for the Catholic Church to name and renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century religious document, instated by papal bulls, that gave explorers papal legitimacy to claim and colonize land they had “discovered.”
On July 28, before the Pope’s homily at a mass held in Quebec City’s Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica, two Cree activists echoed that call, dropping a banner at the mass that read “Rescind the Doctrine.”
The Vatican and the CCCB are working on a new statement from the Church regarding the Doctrine of Discovery, the CCCB says. The work began following an Indigenous delegation’s visit to Rome earlier this year.
“It is important to note that Canada’s bishops continue to reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way,” the CCCB told Canada’s National Observer.
The CCCB is also fully committed to sharing church records with survivors and communities, including providing the documentation that will assist in the memorialization of those buried in unmarked graves, the Ottawa-based organization says.
The CCCB recognizes Indigenous leaders have identified issues with accessing information in a timely manner and says the organization is working to better understand these concerns and provide appropriate support.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action lay out next steps for the Church, and the bishops say they are working towards them.
Call 59 is to educate church leadership, including clergy and parishioners, on Indigenous cultures and spirituality. At its 2021 plenary assembly, Canadian bishops made a national pledge to educate Canadian Catholics and leadership on Indigenous cultures and spirituality, the CCCB said.
Call 60 specifies funding for Indigenous-led healing and cultural centres. The CCCB pointed to $30 million it promised last September for the Indigenous reconciliation fund established by Canadian bishops. The Catholic Church previously agreed to raise $25 million for survivors under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, but that campaign ultimately resulted in less than $4 million.
The CCCB’s current fund is on track to meet its fundraising objectives, with $4.6 million already raised to support Indigenous healing and reconciliation initiatives in Canada, according to the CCCB.
But over $25 million is still needed.
“The proof will be in the actions,” Sinclair says. “Will the conference pay for the $30 million that they owe? Will they return documents? Will they rally the Vatican to return sacred objects? Will they continue the pressure on the Vatican to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery?
“Those are the really big questions.”