Pope’s omission proof of long way still to go


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After a week of carefully crafted apologies for the Roman Catholic church’s role in residential schools, Pope Francis decided to save his most intriguing comments to last.

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After a week of carefully crafted apologies for the Roman Catholic church’s role in residential schools, Pope Francis decided to save his most intriguing comments to last.

On a July 30 flight from Iqaluit to Rome following a six-day tour of Canada, Francis finally conceded the residential schools system amounted to “genocide.” Although he apologized repeatedly for the Church’s role in that system, to that point he had not uttered the term genocide.

In an exchange with reporters on the plane, Francis noted he had used words like “assimilation” and “colonization” and “cultural destruction,” all of which the pontiff argued amounted to the same assessment.

“It’s true that I did not use the word because I didn’t think of it. Yes, genocide is a technical word, but I did not use it because I did not think of it. But … yes, it was a genocide, yes, yes, clearly. You can say that I said it was a genocide.”

The pope’s assertion he “did not think” of employing the term genocide is deeply problematic. Particularly since Francis is patently aware of the volatile political, social and religious implications that come with that word.

In 2015, Francis boldly categorized the 1915-16 mass killing of Armenians by Turkey as a genocide. The pope used the word deliberately during a mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome held to commemorate the centenary of an atrocity that historians believe claimed as many as 1.5 million lives. For the record, Francis was not the first pope to use the word genocide in relation to the mass killing of Armenians; in 2001, Pope John Paul II made the same declaration.

Even so, the pope’s decision drew intense condemnation from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who recalled his country’s Vatican envoy and warned the pontiff after the address “not to repeat this mistake.” To this day, the Turkish government not only officially disputes the number of deaths, it claims they were the result of a civil conflict triggered by WWI, and not a systemic effort to eradicate the Armenian people.

The pope was undaunted by the threats. “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,” Francis said at the time.

There is something alarmingly inconsistent between the tone and words the pope used back in 2015, and those he made this year following his trip to Canada. The pope would have us believe his failure to use term genocide was an oversight. Given his recent experience, that would seem to be unlikely.

The pope’s comment may have intended on this trip to heal the wounds inflicted by the Church on Indigenous people. What he did was remind us how unresolved this issue is for Canada.

It’s worth noting that Canada has not officially classified residential schools as a genocide. Parliament did accept the conclusions of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential schools, which used the term “cultural genocide. And both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole used that term.

It should also be noted that Canadians, on the whole, seem to accept the term cultural genocide. National polls taken in the wake of the TRC report showed that seven in 10 Canadians agreed that residential schools amounted to a form of genocide. As well, the Winnipeg-based Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a federal institution, describes residential schools as an example of genocide.

And yet, there are signs that our collective conviction on this issue has waned.

In 2018, just three years after the TRC issued its report, an Angus Reid poll showed a majority of Canadians (53 per cent) felt that “Canada spends too much time apologizing for residential schools” and that “it’s time to move on.”

That sentiment was on display last year when Winnipeg NDP MP Leah Gazan tabled a resolution to have parliament formally declare residential schools a genocide. When Gazan sought unanimous leave of the House of Commons for a debate, several voices called out “nay,” killing the resolution. To this day, no MP has admitted to uttering a nay.

That contemptible episode confirms an inconvenient truth about Canadian society: even though many non-Indigenous people like to think we’ve accepted the reality of the residential schools’ issue, we have not fully participating in our day of reckoning.

The discovery of what could be hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools shows that Canada is still very much in the process of understanding the magnitude of its crimes against Indigenous people. And until we know more, and have formally acknowledged the scope of those crimes against humanity, we’re unlikely to get on with the job of reconciliation.

And that brings us back to Pope Francis. Although he should be commended for visiting Canada and speaking directly to Indigenous people, the pope’s “oversight” on the use of the term genocide earlier in his trip is a dog whistle for Canadians, most of them non-Indigenous, who want to move on from this issue.

As a nation, Canada has made progress in facing up to this sorry period in our history. Parliament’s failure to formally acknowledge a genocide, and the pope’s error of omission, are proof that we still have a long way to go.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.


Updated on Tuesday, August 2, 2022 8:05 AM CDT: Updates to Turkish President from Armenian President

Updated on Tuesday, August 2, 2022 2:53 PM CDT: Tweaks reference to unmarked graves.

Updated on Wednesday, August 3, 2022 9:52 AM CDT: Fixes typo

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