Harper’s refusal to seek residential-schools apology from Pope ‘deeply disappointing’
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is under fire for turning his back on aboriginal residential school survivors after he skipped a chance to personally urge the Pope to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the abusive system.
Harper met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, just nine days after the release of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Instead of backing that commission’s call for a papal apology, Harper merely “drew attention” to a four-paragraph letter that Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt wrote last week to the Vatican to inform it of the TRC report.
By coincidence, Harper’s meeting with the Pope came on the seventh anniversary of his own June 11, 2008, apology in the House of Commons for the federal government’s role in establishing and supervising the church-run residential school system.
Back then, Harper was praised for his interest in the issue. Now, in the wake of the TRC report, critics say he appears to be abandoning the residential school survivors.
In a prepared statement, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said it is “deeply disappointing” that Harper did not ask the Pope to apologize.
“Today would have been a powerful and appropriate day to issue that invitation and it would help survivors in their healing journey.”
In its report last week, the TRC recommended the Pope travel to Canada within the next year and issue an apology for the church’s role in the “spiritual, emotional, physical and sexual abuse” of aboriginal students in Catholic-run schools.
The commission said the apology could be similar to the one issued by then-Pope Benedict in 2010 to Irish victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy in that country.
In their 10-minute meeting at the Vatican, said Harper’s office, the prime minister invited the Pope to visit Canada in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary (there was no suggestion that he urged a papal apology during this trip.
Harper also used his time with the Pope to complain about Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s “aggression, occupation and violence in Ukraine,” said a statement sent out by his director of media relations, Stephen Lecce.
Harper also raised the plight of religious minorities “at the hands of ISIS barbarism.”
In an interview with the Citizen, Bellegarde said Harper had the “perfect opportunity” to call for a papal apology exactly seven years to the day that he issued his own apology.
“That would have sent a strong message about the government’s commitment towards reconciliation. It’s sad and unfortunate that it did not happen.”
Over many decades, about 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their parents and sent to residential schools where many endured physical, emotional and sexual abuse. About 75,000 of those students remain alive and are seeking ways to heal and reconcile with other Canadians.
Bellegarde said some former residential school students will now conclude Harper doesn’t care about them.
“That’s exactly the message that it’s sending. It sends a message to survivors and First Nations peoples that it’s not important. It’s not a high priority. And that’s the sad part.”
In the House of Commons, New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash, himself a former residential school student, asked the government why Harper had not urged the Pope to apologize.
“Many residential school survivors have said that an apology from the Pope would help them find closure and healing,” said Saganash.
Conservative MP Mark Strahl, the government’s parliamentary secretary for aboriginal affairs, noted that Harper had drawn the Pope’s attention to the letter about the existence of the TRC’s report.
He said the government, which is holding off its response to the TRC until later in the year, is committed to a “fair and lasting resolution” of the issue.
But Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said in an interview that Harper is failing to show leadership.
“It was a unique opportunity that was just squandered. To use today’s meeting as a first step towards reconciliation would have been the right thing to do. The prime minister stands on the wrong side of history – again.”