Pope Francis, apologising means returning Indigenous land

Pope Francis, apologising means returning Indigenous land
5 min read
04 Aug, 2022
The apology given by Pope Francis over the abuse of Indigenous children by the Catholic church in Canada would be far more sincere if it was followed by action given the continued settler colonial violence in the country, writes Dalya Al Masri.
Pope Francis travelled to Canada where he apologised to Indigenous communities for the abuse at Catholic-run residential schools, where more than 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly enrolled for more than 100 years. [GETTY]

On July 24, Pope Francis, the 266th Bishop of Rome, made a “pilgrimage of penance” to Canada, the first papal visit in 20 years, deemed as a six-day “reconciliation” tour to publicly apologise and meet with Indigenous people and leaders.

The pope’s apology was meant to atone for the Catholic Church’s role (among the Canadian government and other Christian churches) in running residential schools, which facilitated the forced removal of Indigenous children away from their families, resulting in sexual and physical abuse, assimilation, stripping of their language and culture, and the continuous everlasting impacts of settler colonialism vis-a-vis the theft of Indigenous land, known as Canada today.

Over the span of six days, Pope Francis visited two provinces and one territory: Alberta, Quebec, and Nunavut. These places hold strong lingering remnants of residential school abuse that occurred not long ago, with the last residential school shut down in 1998.

On his second stop of the “Walking Together” tour in Alberta, the city of Maskwacis, the Pope made a public apology to Indigenous leaders. In his address, he stated: “I humbly beg forgiveness for all the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” a translator for Francis said in English. “Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonising mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples. I am sorry.”

''Analysing the Pope’s visit should be viewed with the overall treatment of Indigenous people and their movement for freedom and justice. Canada’s federal and national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), routinely detain and imprison Indigenous land defenders, most recently at anti-pipeline protests.''

During his address, he was interrupted by Si Pih Ko, an Indigenous woman who started singing in Cree, and crying, stopping his speech. This act proved the Indigenous people are not a monolith, and not all are warmly accepting the Pope’s visit and apology, especially as he was gifted a Native headset prior to the interruption. Si Pih Ko said she did it for her family members who were abused in residential schools.

She noted the Indigenous leaders who welcomed him without scepticism, saying: "I noticed the corporate chiefs are behind him, and not behind me; that's what made me cry the most, because they were standing there strong with him." This statement is noteworthy considering that some Indigenous people have been forced to accept small crumbs the Canadian government offers them, under the guise and terminology of “Truth and Reconciliation.”

In the last few years, more than 1300 unmarked graves have been discovered at residential schools all over Canada, belonging to Indigenous people and children, as young as 3 years old. The role of Catholic churches was extensive and calculated, with the church’s belief that “non-Christian” people were not worthy, in comparison to white Christian and Catholic Europeans. Several justifications were made by these churches, using theology and religion, citing the Doctrine of Discovery as their reason for colonisation and conversion. 

The doctrine is a series of letters, similar to a charter, called papal bulls, which were used and promoted by the Catholic church in the 14th and 15th century to justify European colonisation of Native land. European conquerors were given permission from Christian and Catholic authorities to subjugate Indigenous people’s rights and take their land. Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull in 1493 known as "Inter Caetera", this provided Portugal and Spain the religious backing to take land in Africa and the Americas for the sake of converting people to Christianity. The papal bull said that land not inhabited by Christians could be claimed, while "barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself."

Not only does the doctrine justify colonisation and the conversion of people to Christianity, it also laid the foundation for Canada’s Indian Act, a legislation that was used to establish residential schools. The papal bull helped shape several political and legal arguments that created the Doctrine of Discovery, which was also used by France, England, and other Western and European colonising entities to justify Indigenous land theft.

If Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic church wish to sincerely apologise to Indigenous people, it should be marked with action, rather than one aspect of the larger picture, which is settler colonialism. They should help facilitate the return of land, as there can be no healing or reconciliation when settler colonialism is ongoing and Canada’s governments continue to perpetuate atrocities against Indigenous people.


Calls to revoke and renounce the Doctrine were also shouted from the crowd by Indigenous people, as one of their demands for justice.

Analysing the Pope’s visit should be viewed with the overall treatment of Indigenous people and their movement for freedom and justice. Canada’s federal and national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), routinely detain and imprison Indigenous land defenders, most recently at anti-pipeline protests.

Indigenous people are incarcerated at higher rates, lack clean drinking water, and are subject to discrimination and violence. Indigenous women continue to be murdered, known as Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW), the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and Queer people.

The act of reconciliation implies two parties remedying a problem through conflict resolution. Colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and genocide, are not remedied through reconciliation dialogues nor public apologies, but through the tangible process of decolonisation.

Dalya Al Masri is a journalist and writer based in Vancouver, Canada. Her commentary and work has been featured in Columbia Journalism Review, Al Jazeera English, Huffington Post, Globe and Mail, Passage, and others. She is a member of the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA), and the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA).

Follow her on Twitter: @dalya_masri

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.