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Pope Francis wears a traditional headdress that was gifted to him by indigenous leaders following his apology during his visit on July 25, 2022 in Maskwacis, Canada. The Pope was touring Canada, meeting with Indigenous communities and community leaders in an effort to reconcile the harmful legacy of the church's role in Canada's residential schools. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)Cole Burston/Getty Images

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(LifeSiteNews) — Pope Francis briefly donned an indigenous war bonnet on July 25 following his apology for the Church’s role in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, an act many church theologians would call sacrilegious. During his trip, he also allowed himself to be smudged, another act traditionalists would call reprehensible. 

I know of the gratitude that you yourselves, the Indian and Inuit peoples, have towards the missionaries who have lived and died among you. What they have done for you is spoken of by the whole Church; it is known by the entire world. These missionaries endeavored to live your life, to be like you in order to serve you and to bring you the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Whatever faults and imperfections they had, whatever mistakes were made, together with whatever harm involuntarily resulted, they are now at pains to repair. But next to this entry, filed in the memory of your history, is the record, with endless proofs, of their fraternal love.

That marvelous rebirth of your culture and traditions which you are experiencing today owes much to the pioneering and continuing efforts of missionaries in linguistics, ethnography and anthropology. 

Yes, dear Indians and Inuit, the missionaries have always shared in your cultural and social life. 

These glad tidings were spoken by a Catholic Pope. No, not Francis, the current one, a liberation theologian for whom a New Age social gospel trumps the age-old personal salvation one. Instead, they were uttered by a previous pope, John Paul II – a conservative and stern critic of Marxist-based liberation theologyat the Yellowknife Airport in the North West Territories of Canada in 1984.  

Thirty-eight years later, Francis delivered a far darker and less nuanced message in his “penitential pilgrimage” of confession and apology for the sins, mostly unproven, committed by members of his church against indigenous children in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.  

In his July 25 address on the grounds of the old Ermineskin (formerly Hobbema) Indian Residential School at Maskwacis in central Alberta, Pope Francis said: 

I have been waiting to come here and be with you! Here, from this place associated with painful memories…. I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow…  

I recall the meetings we had in Rome four months ago. At that time, I was given two pairs of moccasins [representing the bodies of missing children] as a sign of the suffering endured by Indigenous children, particularly those who, unfortunately, never came back from the residential schools.… 

It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation and enfranchisement, which also included the residential school system, were devastating for the people of these lands. When the European colonists first arrived here, there was a great opportunity to bring about a fruitful encounter between cultures, traditions and forms of spirituality. Yet for the most part that did not happen. Again, I think back on the stories you told: how the policies of assimilation ended up systematically marginalizing the Indigenous peoples; how also through the system of residential schools your languages and cultures were denigrated and suppressed; how children suffered physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse; how they were taken away from their homes at a young age, and how that indelibly affected relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren. (emphasis added) 

In the face of this deplorable evil [cultural destruction and forced assimilation], the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children. 

A fulsome papal apology, if there ever was one, full of remorse about what should have been a “fruitful encounter” between belief systems but instead represented “spiritual abuse” of children in the boarding schools, a metaphor for one rooted in contemporary moral relativism asserting that the gospel of Jesus Christ has no higher standing than traditional indigenous spirituality, part of a statement damning the entire Church and its 2,000-year-old mission in the process. 

Implicit in this apology is that a multiplicity of pre-contact polytheistic indigenous spiritual systems are morally and supernaturally equivalent to Catholicism’s fundamental beliefs: that Jesus is the Son of God and equal to God; that He was crucified to pay the penalty for all human sins; that He rose from the dead; that all humans are saved by the grace of God; and that salvation and the inheritance of the Kingdom of God can be achieved only by a deep belief in these core principles and the renunciation of any contrary anti-Christian ones. 

None of this was mentioned by a legacy media that chose instead to focus on what the Pope omitted in his confession – financial reparations for Indian Residential School attendance, the return of artifacts freely given to or purchased by Church officials, sorrow for supposedly unmarked graves containing the bodies of missing Indian Residential School children, and the existence of rampant Indian Residential School sexual abuse — than what he said.

Nor did these media reveal the extent to which this heir to St. Peter libeled what is arguably the longest-lasting and most successful Christian church in human history. For true believers rather than postmodern woke ones, this must have caused much anxiety, perhaps even shame and guilt, in a church numbering 1.2 billion members 

In celebrating a progressive lurch to the left that says all spiritual beliefs have equal validity or even that pagan ones are more authentic, this pontiff surely tarnished his legacy while defaming the memory of the thousands of priests, nuns, Catholic brothers, and lowly workers, many of them indigenous people, who gave a lifetime of work compassionately and patiently teaching and caring for tens of thousands of indigenous children, nearly all with their parents’ or the state’s blessing, all in the name of their God, so they could adapt to life in a rapidly changing Canadian society. 

Pope Francis seemed willfully ignorant of or indifferent to such considerations. Neither did he show any awareness of how few children – one-third at most – actually attended the Indian Residential Schools. Nor did he address whether there was any alternative to the residential, or the equally maligned Indian Day Schools, during their 150 years of operation beginning in the mid-19th century. Surely, that alternative was no Western education, partly because there was much more demand than supply as the decades passed.  

Regarding the role of the state in these matters, if the legal recognition of indigenous people  had not occurred – if there had been no Royal Proclamation of 1763, no land treaties, and no Indian Act – would not most aboriginals have long been fully absorbed by the millions of immigrants from more developed Western European counties who began flooding into Canada from the mid 19th century? Instead, the ethnic identities of Canada’s first peoples were legally protected as were their languages and cultures even in the residential schools.  This prevented any “cultural genocide” — a politically hyperbolic rendering of ordinary enculturation —  while being exposed by dedicated Christian missionaries, mostly Roman Catholic, to those features of modernization such as literacy, commercial agriculture, carpentry, and other vocations it was hoped would allow them to prosper in a rapidly changing country.  

Conversely, if the enculturation – internalization of features of alien cultures — of indigenous people had not been encouraged, is there reason to believe that they would now be far better off pursuing a traditional stone-age existence lacking literacy, Western technology, modern medicine, Christian teachings, and other fruits of post-neolithic culture? 

Despite the role the Catholic church played in encouraging these practices to compensate for the loss or decline of traditional livelihood strategies like hunting, gathering, subsistence farming, trapping, and bartering, the Pope’s broad, albeit distorted, apology did not prevent Murray Sinclair, former Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) charged with reporting on the operation and legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, from dismissing the apology as inadequate. He did so by claiming that it, “… 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,” a wildly false assertion as the Pope’s confession that “the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children” clearly shows. 

More important is the question of how the incompatible versions of the Catholic Church’s interaction with indigenous people given by these two popes can be reconciled.  

The key to its answer is explaining why Maskwacis, of all places in Canada, was chosen for this papal apology. 

A straightforward but incomplete answer is that Maskwacis is not Kamloops, even though the Holy Father would never have made the pilgrimage to Canada if not for the May 27, 2021 announcement allegingthe confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School” in graves also said to contain students murdered by the school’s Catholic priests. Over 14 months later, this outlandish confirmation still has not an iota of truth attached to it despite its dogma-like status in legacy media.

So, why would this pope avoid Kamloops – especially when so many indigenous people urged him to go there — if this were a “penitential pilgrimage,” as he claimed, and when: 

Other popes have issued apologies during trips abroad – John Paul II did so for Catholic antisemitism when he visited Germany, the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the Yad Vashem – World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel.”  

The answer lies in a combination of the seriousness of these accusations – that priests buried children in the dead of night – as groundless as they are, and the vitriol expressed by Kamloops band chief, Rosanne Casimir, in response to Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s failure to attend the very first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation commemoration held on her Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc (Kamloops) Indian Reserve on September 30, 2021. When he did visit the community on October 18 instead, Casimir blasted his previous absence by exclaiming that “The shock, anger and sorrow and disbelief was palpable in our community.” 

If she could so easily scold a Prime Minister for the transgression of failing to attend a local ceremony, the Pope’s fate could have been far worse than a straightforward tongue lashing given the accusations, spurious as they are, of heinous crimes committed by the Church’s priests.  

The rest of the answer lies well outside the Kamloops heart of darkness but in the soul of benevolence, Maskwacis itself. A hamlet that used to be called Hobbema, the community consists of two Plains Cree reserves – one on the Ermineskin reserve – home to its former Indian Residential School with the same name operated by Catholic missionaries from 1894 to 1969 – and the other on the Samson reserve to the south. Maskwacis also served three nearby reserves whose students attended the boarding school. 

We assert that the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School was just as carefully selected as Kamloops was prudently avoided for Pope Francis’ first and most important event, his July 25 apology. Nevertheless, its real significance is partly obscured by the explicitly stated reasons given by the newly-woke Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for penitence, who wrote: 

On July 25, Pope Francis will visit Maskwacis, home to the former Ermineskin Residential School, one of the largest residential school sites in Canada. The Holy Father will join former residential school students from across the country as part of a formal program. Alberta is home to the largest number of former residential schools [25] in Canada. 

These reasons were supplemented by a CTV News story that claimed, “Those who know Maskwacis well believe it was selected for its history, location, Catholic ties, and openness.” 

Tellingly, the Pope was not scheduled to visit any other residential school site while in Canada, a clue that more important factors were at play. 

The first is that local officials demolished the boarding school’s building in the 1990s, replacing it with the Ermineskin Junior Senior High School. Since then, on-reserve enrolment has increased from 30 percent to 70 per cent, according to Matthew Wildcat, a University of Alberta political science and native studies professor who grew up in the hamlet: 

“There’s a symbolism because you have a new school that’s been put up in its place and it’s been a school of success and a real beacon of hope, I think, for First Nation education in this country.”  

A more critical “symbolism” is that no ground penetrating radar (GPR) study looking for possible unmarked graves has been reported to have taken place around the old school grounds, suggesting that if any such search has taken place, it failed to produce any incriminating evidence of possible human remains in the form of disturbed soil, which is about all GPR can reveal. Surely, Church officials would have been aware of this fact.  

But what this site was mainly chosen for by Church officials was its politically and morally-based symbolism rooted in facts about its school and countless ones like it.  

Despite housing thousands of students during its 79-year history, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s (NCTR) Memorial Register recorded just 15 deaths at the school, which averages out to one death every five years.  

Though the Memorial Register reports these children as having died while attending the school, the four whose records were found by a researcher who prefers to remain anonymous, suggest they were properly buried on their home reserves according to traditional Catholic rites. One was Adele Helen Oldpan who died of tuberculosis on January 25, 1949, as her death certificate shown below proves. The certificates of the other three can be found here. 

The 1949 National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s (NCTR) Memorial Register death record for residential school student Adele Helen Oldpan.

The date of death of six children is not listed, suggesting that the NCTR never searched the meticulously kept school records maintained by their teachers, mainly nuns, to determine their fate. 

Data like these help dispute the unsubstantiated claim by Murray Sinclair that up to 25,000 of the estimated 150,000 Indian Residential School students perished because of their school experience, an assertion contradicted by his Commission’s own findings that reported just 832 at-school student deaths over a 113-year period.

This figure also challenges the concern in the Pope’s apology for “the suffering endured by Indigenous children, particularly those who, unfortunately, never came back from the residential schools.” The 832 figure, if true, represents one-half of one percent of all those who attended an IRS, a tiny yet painful figure, but one that can’t be trusted given the sloppy way the TRC conducted its investigations. The fate of all these indigenous students may well be found when and if their death records are carefully looked for in their respective provincial archives, a task never performed by the TRC or NCTR. 

Most relevant of all to the Pope’s apology at this site is the content of everyday life in the Ermineskin Residential School and those like it in rural Alberta. There is a mountain of contemporaneous evidence showing that these schools were far from the horror houses depicted in the media and the TRC volumes, the latter based on decades-old unverified verbal recollections of former students. 

Detailed chronicles written in a diary-like fashion by three religious orders of nuns minutely describe the love and dedication of women who sacrificed their entire adult lives nursing, teaching, and mothering indigenous children, many of them orphans, for decades at the Erminskine Indian Residential School. Three books of these chronicles, never intended for public release, thereby enhancing their credibility, can be found here. Similar chronicles, carefully preserved by the Church, were written about other schools across Canada. 

Anyone reading the Chronicles of the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (1894 – 1936) could not help but be impressed by the concern and care they show for indigenous children. Always referred to as “our dear children,” the youngsters were never neglected nor punished for wrongdoing beyond the standards of the time.  

Apart from classroom teaching and practical education, Ermineskin was the site of many outings, picnics, feasts, and concerts. Except for orphans and neglected or abused children, its students went home for day-holidays and long summer vacations. Conversely, parents visited their children whenever they wished. If families needed their older children at home for help with farming or other activities, this was always permitted.  

The following excerpts document everyday life at the school. Hundreds like it are found in the chronicles and have been described and catalogued in a carefully crafted essay devoted to the chronicles by skilled researcher, Nina Green. 

July 29. 2015. Today and tomorrow about 30 Indians, men and women, are cleaning up the cemetery and fencing it. We prepare dinner each day. We set the tables under the trees in the garden. Since the Chief is in charge, he occupies the place of honour at the table. He seems pleased with the menu. People have worked up an appetite, and everyone seems happy to have a good meal. 

September 5, 1918. Big picnic for the children, what a joy for them to go and spend the day in the woods at some distance from the house, what joys, sweet frolics and brilliant bursts of laughter, since the good Father Moulin amuses them and distributes to them, candies, fruits, ribbons, etc.; nothing is spared to give them all the pleasure possible, so they come back enchanted from this beautiful day that has passed too quickly. 

November 17, 1937. It is a real commotion the house; the doctor and a nurse come to inject the children for a general examination for tuberculosis. On Thursday and Friday, 6 cars will be at the disposal of the school to take the children to the hospital in Wetaskiwin. 

January 31, 1938. To prevent the bad effects of the flu, Fr. Moulin ordered that the children be left in bed in the morning and that they be allowed to rest in bed for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. Everyone takes herbal tea and other necessary medicines. 

December 4, 1955. Meeting of the members of the Catholic Indian League. Father Principal speaks to our members. Indians praise their school. 

March 16, 1962. “Open House” at the school. A large number of parents visited the classrooms. All are very satisfied. Many expressed their appreciation. 

In sum, the site of the Ermineskin Residential School was the ideal locale for the pontiff to offer an apology, one where he also fleetingly stated that there were, “many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children [in the residential schools].” An understatement if there ever was one, it still repudiates the inflammatory and groundless charge by Fred Hiltz, the former archbishop and primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, that there was “nothing good” about the residential school system. 

Though the Catholic Church is certainly aware of the content of their own records, including the chronicles, little attention was paid to the countless archival and published accounts of the positive side of life in the Indian Residential School by the TRC, a body content instead to accept the unverified verbal recollections of a self-selected and arguably unrepresentative sample of 6,500-7,000 mainly aggrieved witnesses testifying about events that occurred decades earlier.  

Given the content of the testimonies presented before the TRC, it is reasonable to assume that most of these witnesses came from the 31,000 former students who were financially compensated to the overall tune of $CDN 3.2 billion via the “non-adversarial” – read, “unexamined and uncorroborated” — Independent Assessment Process for “claims of sexual abuse, serious physical abuse, and other wrongful acts suffered at Indian Residential Schools,” including abuse by fellow students, the most common type of all. The average compensation awarded by adjudicators to claimants was over $CDN 91,000.  

This evidentiary process highlights the most unsettling feature of the entire TRC project, namely its assault on the Western Enlightenment notion of natural justice which says: no person should be a judge in his own cause; both sides in disputes should be given a fair hearing; any decision reached should be based on a reasoned examination of all the facts.  

None of these ancient standards of Western justice were ever observed. The three TRC Commissioners acted simultaneously as conveners, investigators, fact collectors, interrogators, judges, and jury in a process that abjured the basic elements of the presumption of innocence unless proven guilty when grievous physical abuse, and even murder, were reported by victims who were never rigorously cross examined.  

The terms of reference of the TRC’s work, as negotiated with Canada’s federal government, was to “Acknowledge Residential School experiences, impacts and consequences,” a goal the Commission arbitrarily transformed into a search for “the individual and collective harms perpetrated against Aboriginal peoples” in its multi-volume final report. 

The Commission attempted to achieve this new goal by relying almost exclusively on the unsubstantiated testimonies of Indian Residential School “survivors,” the same approach Francis took in his apology. 

Despite this, there may be a glimmer of hope in this whole poorly investigated matter, as Francis seemed to equivocate toward the end of his address by stating that:  

… looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations [as occurred at the IRS] from happening. … An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious search into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered. (emphasis added) 

Decoding these words is tricky, but if they suggest some doubt that the TRC Final Report is the last word about the Indian Residential Schools, as its many supporters contend, there is still hope that the true face of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, warts and all, will someday be revealed. 

In the meantime, skeptics like us will have to be content with the more credible words of that other Pope, John Paul II. 

Hymie Rubenstein is editor of The REAL Indian Residential Schools newsletter. A retired professor of anthropology, he was a member of and taught for many years at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba, the only Catholic higher education institution in Manitoba and one endorsed by the Canadian Province of the Society of Jesus.

Shannon Lee Mannion is an independent researcher based in rural Ontario.