EDMONTON, Alberta — Pope Francis began a historic visit to Canada on Sunday to apologize to Indigenous peoples for abuses by missionaries at residential schools, a key step in the Catholic Church’s efforts to reconcile with Native communities and help them heal from generations of trauma.
Francis kissed the hand of a residential school survivor as he was greeted at the Edmonton, Alberta, airport by Indigenous representatives, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, an Inuk who is Canada’s first Indigenous governor general. The gesture set the tone of what Francis has said is a “penitential pilgrimage” to atone for the role of Catholic missionaries in the forced assimilation of generations of Native children — a visit that has stirred mixed emotions across Canada as survivors and their families cope with the trauma of their losses and receive a long-sought papal apology.
Francis had no official events scheduled Sunday, giving him time to rest before his meeting Monday with survivors near the site of a former residential school in Maskwacis, where he is expected to pray at a cemetery and apologize.
Francis exited the back of his plane with the help of an ambulift, given his strained knee ligaments have forced him to use a wheelchair. The simple welcome ceremony took place in airport hangar, where Indigenous drums and chanting broke the silence. As Trudeau and Simon sat beside Francis, a succession of Indigenous leaders and elders greeted the pope and exchanged gifts. At one point, Francis kissed the hand of residential school survivor Elder Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nations as she was introduced to him.
Comment: In addition to Edmonton, Pope Francis’ pilgrimage of penance, as he put it, will take him to Quebec City and Iqaliut, the capital of Nunavut. The sole purpose of the trip is to deliver an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system. Whether Francis will go beyond the act of expressing contrition and asking for forgiveness is not known. As in the prayer said during the sacrament of confession, will Francis firmly intend, with God’s help, “to do penance, to sin no more and to avoid anything that may lead me to sin?” Of course, he’s speaking here for the entire Roman Catholic Church. It is not just a personal act of contrition. What, if anything, will he do?
Will he renounce the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery, Inter Caetera, issued by Pope Alexander VI. This Papal Bull supported Spain’s strategy to ensure its exclusive right to the lands discovered by Columbus. It established a demarcation line one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands and gave Spain the exclusive right to acquire territorial possessions and to trade in all lands west of that line. The Papal Bull went far beyond this simple drawing of a line on a map. It stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered, claimed and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
This doctrine became a guiding force for European exploration and exploitation of Africa and the Americas. It was even cited by Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1823 case Johnson vs. McIntosh in his written opinion that “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” The Court ruled that Native American nations did not have the right to sell their own land, that with the independence from Britain, the United States government inherited the right of preemption over Native American lands.
The taking of land inhabited by others is not exclusively a Western Christian idea. It’s a universally human condition… at least among human societies with the power to exercise that condition. The difference lies in that the doctrine of discovery lays claim to not just the land, but to the people that inhabit that land and those peoples’ very souls. This doctrine led to the wrongs that now bring Pope Francis to Canada on his pilgrimage of penance.
Note: For further background on the subject, America Magazine did a deep dive that contains both a podcast and a video interview. I also did an article on the subject a year ago. The ensuing discussion was interesting, to say the least.