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4,000+ Children Died: Pope Apologizes to Indigenous Groups in Canada over Residential School Abuse

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Pope Francis is on a historic trip to Canada this week to apologize for the mistreatment suffered by thousands of Indigenous children in residential schools run by the Catholic Church. Many survivors say the apology comes over half a century too late and the church should take further actions to prevent the psychological, physical and sexual abuse from recurring in Catholic-run institutions. We go to Toronto to speak to Mi’kmaq lawyer Pamela Palmater, who says the apology was little more than “pomp and circumstance” for the church, which ultimately “doesn’t take responsibility for their policies and practices.” Her Toronto Star op-ed is headlined “Another pope’s apology isn’t enough when Catholic Church’s cover-ups and hypocrisy continue to this day.”

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AMY GOODMAN: On his historic trip across Canada, Pope Francis is apologizing for the abuse of Indigenous children who were removed from their homes and sent to church-run residential schools, where they faced psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Francis made the apology in Maskwacis, Alberta, the site of a former residential school.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry, sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools. … I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously; humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.

AMY GOODMAN: The pope’s apology comes seven years after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission accused the Catholic Church-run residential schools of taking part in a form of “cultural genocide.” The commission determined more than 4,000 Indigenous children died from neglect or abuse in residential schools across Canada. Unmarked graves are still being found. The first residential schools opened in 1883; the last one closed in 1998. During that time, over 150,000 Indigenous children were sent away to rid them of their Native cultures and languages and integrate them into mainstream Canadian society. This is Tony Alexis, chief of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, speaking after the pope’s apology.

TONY ALEXIS: As soon as the apology started, people were triggered immediately. You could see it in the audience. You could see it, and you could hear it from different messages we were getting as we were sitting there, that it triggered an opening of a wound again. And this wound that has been opened again, we can’t just leave it like that. We really have to take the steps to make sure that we help heal and recover our people.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Evelyn Korkmaz, who spent four years at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario. She now helps other survivors of residential schools deal with trauma.

EVELYN KORKMAZ: It’s been a very emotional day for me as a survivor. I had my ups and downs, my hoorays, my disappointments, my wanting more and not getting it. I’ve waited 50 years for this apology, and finally, today, I heard it. And unfortunately, a lot of my family members, friends, classmates and members of my community that went to residential school were not able to hear it because they had passed on through suicide, alcohol addiction, suicide — sorry, I said that — and other substance abuse or whatnot, because they could not endure or live with the trauma that they endured in these residential schools.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the pope’s apology tour, his trip across Canada, we’re joined by Pamela Palmater. She is Mi’kmaq lawyer, member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, recently published an op-ed in the Toronto Star headlined “Another pope’s apology isn’t enough when Catholic Church’s cover-ups and hypocrisy continue to this day.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Pamela Palmater. Can you start off by responding to his apology tour, what he has said, what he hasn’t said?

PAMELA PALMATER: Well, it was pretty much what I feared, that it would be one of those very carefully worded apologies where the church itself, the organization, doesn’t take responsibility for their policies and practices, the cover-ups, knowing that there were sex offenders all over the world, not dealing with the sex offenders, protecting them, and that, in fact, they themselves, the church itself, was the one responsible for all of the crimes that were committed by their Christian members because they issued the papal bull, which — you know, the Doctrine of Discovery, saying, you know, go forth and steal all of these lands. So, no real acceptance of responsibility on the part of the church.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Pam, you mentioned the predators. You’ve written that of more than 5,000 sexual predators who abused the majority of 150,000 children in the residential schools, that a mere fraction have ever faced criminal charges — fewer than 50. Could you elaborate on that and what you would hope would be done?

PAMELA PALMATER: Well, the government spent like over $1.5 million hiring 17 private investigators to identify the perpetrators in these residential schools. We know the Catholic Church represented about 60% of those schools, but other churches ran the other ones. These predators have been allowed to walk free ever since, without any monitoring, without any surveillance. And that’s my biggest concern, because worldwide, where you look at the exact same situations, whether it’s in the United States, in Australia, in France, they have — even where they’ve had inquiries or litigation settlements, they have allowed these sexual predators to walk free, and they’ve gone on to work with children and sexually offend again. So, my concern is we have absolutely no idea of how bad it has continued to this day in Canada.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about this whole issue of reparations? The New York Times reported that the Catholic Church has paid just about a little over a million of the $25 million Canadian that it promised to the victims in Canada. Could you — what’s the situation? Could you talk about the situation with reparations?

PAMELA PALMATER: Right. So, here’s the thing with apologies. You know, you have to be really sorry. You have to admit for all of the crimes. You know, then you have to kind of promise not to do it again, and take steps to make sure the abuse doesn’t happen. And then there’s the issue of reparations. And reparations is when you try to make amends. You try to put the person in the situation they would have been, you know, but for your wrongs.

And the basics, like they agreed to a certain amount in compensation in the settlement agreement, and never paid it — that’s not a sign of good faith. The fact that, you know, they haven’t done — rescinded the Doctrine of Discovery, something that was asked for. The fact that they haven’t addressed — issued all of the documents. They haven’t even released all of the documents that would help Native people identify all of these unmarked graves, who’s in those graves, how they died, who’s responsible. Those documents haven’t been released, nor have they released all of the artifacts that were stolen during that period. So, you know, apologies are just words when you are still today not living up to your legal or moral obligations.

AMY GOODMAN: Pam Palmater, can you talk about what prompted this tour? And also, as he goes across Canada to make these apologies, I think he is moving on to Iqaluit. And if you can tell us the significance of this? I don’t know if he’s mentioned sexual abuse.

PAMELA PALMATER: Yeah, no, he hasn’t. And that’s the other thing. When you apologize, you have to say, “Here’s what I did, and I see the harms that it caused you.” No mention of sexual abuse. No mention of the cover-ups. No mention of, you know, the worldwide involvement in allowing their priests and clergy and staff and everyone associated with the Catholic Church to continue to go on and sexually abuse children. Absolutely no acknowledgment of that or the Doctrine of Discovery, which is the basis of the genocide in both Canada and the United States. So it’s not really an apology if you haven’t acknowledged the full scope of what you’ve done. And some of the worst things that they did, aside from killing children, was sexual abuse, that has gone on to haunt these children for the rest of their lives, for those who did survive.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of reparations, if you can talk more about that? Who is greeting the pope as he makes his way across Canada? What nations? What First Nations? And are they raising these issues with him?

PAMELA PALMATER: Well, see, that’s the thing. So, in Canada, we have First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Inuit are in the north. First Nations are like all over Canada. And Métis are spread out. I mean, we have 634 First Nations, representing a significant number of nations. These were primarily Indian residential schools, although Inuit and Métis were impacted.

There is a very, very, very small number of individual chiefs or regional chiefs or so-called dignitaries or members of Native organizations, along with some survivors, that are meeting the pope and/or organizing it. The vast majority have had no say in it. And, in fact, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations has already said in the media that, you know, women weren’t involved in this, and she wasn’t permitted to be involved in this. So, you can imagine just how upsetting it is for a large number of people who don’t have a say, who don’t get to say, you know, “Here’s what you need to be saying. Here’s what you need to be doing,” you know, which leaves this empty apology.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned, Pam, that the Catholic Church was responsible for about half of these schools. What about the other Christian churches? What has been their response to the — now for the unfolding revelations over the past several years of their role in these atrocities?

PAMELA PALMATER: Well, the Catholic Church was responsible for the majority, so about 60%. But, yes, all of the other churches also responsible, they’ve each issued apologies over the years for different things. But you don’t see a real significant act of contrition or penitence or any of those things that they claim, things like, you know, making sure that there is money, aside from the compensation agreement, to help restore languages, to help provide healing for all of the people who were traumatized, to help support all of those who need the funding and the legal supports to identify their children in unmarked graves and return them back to their communities. It’s things like that, or returning the lands that were stolen for the purposes of the church. Like, keep in mind, the Catholic Church and other churches often buy and sell lands, lease lands, those kinds of things, try to raise money. Those lands should be going back to First Nations. Imagine, those lands were taken to commit such horrible atrocities.

So, I don’t see very sincere, wholesome apologies and reparations on the part of all of these churches. But I think, in terms of — in comparison, the Catholic Church is far worse — you know, the papal bulls, the large numbers, the worldwide influence, all of that. And keep in mind, the Catholic Church didn’t just impact residential school survivors. They’re the responsible for the death of millions in Canada and the U.S. from the Indigenous community and a whole bunch of other atrocities outside of the residential school process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve mentioned a couple of times the Doctrine of Discovery. For a lot of young people who are not familiar with that — because, obviously, that had a big impact not just in North America, but in Latin America, as well, during the colonial period — could you explain the Doctrine of Discovery?

PAMELA PALMATER: Yeah. In its simplest terms, it basically gave power, the so-called power, to the European nations to go forth and conquer any lands where Christians don’t inhabit, you know, lands that were so-called terra nullius, where no one is living, a no-man’s land, so to speak. But, in fact, we know it wasn’t just an authority to go forth and take those lands. It was to use whatever force necessary to rid the lands of any non-Christians. And you saw that all over North and South America. Millions and millions upon millions were killed, tortured, abused, exploited, put into slavery.

And not just in the old days. We’re talking over hundreds of years, and the abuse — the physical abuse, the exploitation, the sexual abuse — continues today. So, while we talk about the Doctrine of Discovery and all of the abuse as though it was like in the long-ago past, it’s still having implications today, which is why so many want the church to officially rescind, repeal, revoke — whatever they need to do — the Doctrine of Discovery and start accepting responsibility for what’s happening in the here and now.

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, Pamela Palmater, if you can give us context globally also for popes’ apologies, whether we’re talking about Australia, the United States or your country, Canada?

PAMELA PALMATER: Right. Well, you know, different popes have given different apologies all around the world, North and South America, European countries, for the atrocities, the violence, physical abuse, you name it, and have tried to make these very wide-ranging general apologies. But what you see the church as the organization doing is fighting against settlement agreements. In fact, in the United States, you have the church who has church and molestation liability insurance. I mean, imagine knowing that you’re so bad that you have molestation insurance. And so, now high-powered law firms actually filing countersuits against mothers for failing to protect their children against sexual predator priests.

So, there’s a lot of seedy things that are happening — the destruction of documents, the refusal to hand over documents, all of this intimidation, the refusal to hold anyone to account. And this is globally, worldwide, including here in North America. So, the actions of the church today are still terrible. So, when you see all of the pomp and circumstance and what looks great around the pope apologizing, keep in mind he’s the head of an organization that is fighting the victims of all of the abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Pamela Palmater, Mi’kmaq lawyer, member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University. We’ll link to your piece in the Toronto Star headlined “Another pope’s apology isn’t enough when Catholic Church’s cover-ups and hypocrisy continue to this day.” She’s speaking to us from Toronto.

Next, we go to Burma, where the military junta has executed four men imprisoned for opposing last year’s coup. Stay with us.

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