Papal apology to Indigenous Peoples in Canada: OCRCC responds

In a visit across Canada, Pope Francis asked for “forgiveness in the name of the church” for its part in Canada’s residential school system, the church’s attempts to erase Indigenous cultures, and the role many of its members played in abusing children[1].

The church-operated schools included over 150 institutions that, for over a century, separated Indigenous children from their families in order to assimilate them into Canadian society. Many Indigenous youth lost their lives at residential institutions: Justice Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, estimated the number of children who died in residential schools may be as high as 30,000[2]. Many young people also suffered abuse. An estimated 5,000 people committed a sexual offence against Indigenous youth at residential schools during the system’s 100 year existence, but fewer than 50 were ever convicted[3].

Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC) stands in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, and as allies in acknowledging the atrocities of residential schools. The harms inflicted by this system include physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse—as well as strategic colonial violence that was endorsed by more than one powerful Canadian institution. This affects Indigenous individuals and communities today. More, continued violence against Indigenous persons has roots in these historical incidences and the racist attitudes that informed them.

About the papal apology in Canada

Pope Francis apologized for the role Catholic institutions played in the Indigenous residential school system. The pope’s remarks mark both an historic apology, and an acknowledgment of the harms committed against Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

At the same time, we are critical of some aspects of this apology. For example, it was only later in his tour that the pope mentioned sexual violence, stating that “the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people [are] crimes that require firm action and an irreversible commitment”[4]. The pope did not always apologize clearly for the church as an institution either: as Anishinaabe activist Sarain Fox shared, the pope’s remarks did not make “it clear that the entire religious organization, not just a few bad people, was responsible for residential school abuses”[5]. Some Indigenous people have also said that they wish to hear about the church’s commitments to change: for example, actions that will follow the apologies.

While important, the apology – and its wide coverage in the media – has also been painful for Indigenous persons. Indigenous Services Canada said its 24-hour crisis support line has received double the number of callers it usually gets since the pope arrived in Canada[6].

It’s important to name sexual violence and colonial violence

Stigma, isolation and silence often surround experiences of violence. Many sexual violence survivors wish to acknowledge about their experiences, but fear the reactions of others: anticipating negative responses can isolate and silence survivors of sexual violence[7] even further.

Silence about sexual violence contributes to misconceptions, such as the idea that sexual violence doesn’t happen often, isn’t a big deal, or should not be talked about. These misconceptions shape “how sexual violence is understood by those who have experienced it” and many others[8]. Misconceptions also minimizes the real effects of sexual violation, which can include physical injuries, reproductive health effects, and chronic health conditions related to stress[9]. Survivors experience significant psychological distress as a result sexual violation[10], and common reactions to sexual violence align with many mental health concerns[11]. An inability to name sexual violence makes it harder for survivors to recognize these impacts, and creates barriers to finding support. On the other hand, the benefits of talking about one’s experience of sexual violence in a safe setting are “associated with improved psychological health, increased comfort, support, and validation”[12].   

Violence against Indigenous people through colonialism must also be acknowledged. The legacy of settler exploitation and white supremacy faced by Indigenous Peoples is thoroughly documented[13] in Canada’s history. Canadian systems have intentionally coerced, controlled and stole from Indigenous Peoples[14] over many decades. Exploitation of Indigenous human bodies is also a part of our colonial legacy. Violence brought by colonialism “upon Indigenous Peoples was normalized through the propagation of degrading cultural and sexual myths”[15]. With these racist stereotypes in mind, the Canadian government and church instituted the residential school system[16] and other systems that demeaned Indigenous ways of being.

Anti-indigenous racism has informed many other injustices against Indigenous Peoples as well: the 60s scoop[17], and the over-representation of Indigenous infants and children in child protection services across the country[18] are just a few examples of more recent colonial violence. In Canada today, Indigenous women are three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be violently or sexually assaulted[19].

Naming and speaking about these injustices is an important part of pushing back against anti-Indigenous racism. Recognition of – and reparations for – these atrocities must be included in strategies for change.

Indigenous Peoples in Canada hold many strengths and have extensive expertise about healing

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which looked at the experiences of residential school survivors, notes:

Indigenous people “are more than just victims of violence. They are also holders of Treaty, constitutional, and human rights. They are women and men who have resilience, courage, and vision. Many have become Elders, community leaders, educators, lawyers, and political activists who are dedicated to revitalizing their cultures, languages, Treaties, laws, and governance systems. Through lived experience, they have gained deep insights into what victims of violence require to heal[20].

Indigenous organizations, elders, community members and leaders have considerable expertise in violence prevention, as well as in strategies for healing. Everyone has a role in recognizing and responding to violence impacting Indigenous people in Canada. Strategies to address violence impacting Indigenous communities must be self-determined and prioritize indigenous-led solutions[21].

If you are Indigenous, please know that we care about you. There are spaces and people that support you.

What allies can do

If you are a settler ally, a community leader or a person with political leadership, there are things you can do to support Indigenous communities. You can:

  • Learn about the history of anti-Indigenous racism in Canada and the history of residential schools
  • Actively reflect on the biases this has created in you and others, and in the systems we live with today
  • If you work in these systems, including faith-based organizations, challenge them to take responsibility for past harms upon Indigenous people. Commit to creating new ways to work with Indigenous communities so to not recreate harmful patterns and processes
  • Learn more about the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations, and advocate for the implementation of the Calls to Action. In 2015, the TRC engaged Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation. To date, some progress has been made on some Calls to Action; others have seen little action
  • Center the knowledge of Indigenous communities, and take action to see recommended actions through. The Canadian Association of Midwives shares: “As non-Indigenous people, our tendency is to wait on reports and the findings of federally appointed commissions to validate what Indigenous people already know. While research and evidence-gathering serve a purpose, we should not wait for this to validate the truth that is already known”[22].

We believe that violence cannot be separated from a broader context – one in which those that are harmed, those that cause harm, and the violations that happen exist in a larger system of social norms and inequities.

At OCRCC, we also commit to doing our own work. This includes taking anti-racist and decolonizing approaches to our partnerships, practices and policies; centering Indigenous survivors of violence in our work; centering Indigenous voices and knowledge in our work; and prioritizing anti-racist and decolonizing trainings and tools for our members and staff.

Much as OCRCC’s understandings of sexual violence is rooted in a systemic analysis of violence, broader acts of violence that affect certain communities, people, or identities must also be understood this way.  Addressing colonial violence is a part of this work.

Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC)is a network of 30+ community-based sexual assault centres in Ontario. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, go to https://sexualassaultsupport.ca/support/.  


[1] Reuters, Thomas for CBC. August 3, 2022. Pope Francis asks for ‘forgiveness in the name of the church’ for abuses at residential schools: the pontiff spent last week in Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit. Online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/pope-francis-general-audience-canada-residential-schools-1.6539562

[2] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future : summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Online: https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf.

[3] Hopper, T. for the National Post. June 10, 2021. Why so many sexual predators at Indian Residential Schools escaped punishment. Online: https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/why-so-many-sexual-predators-at-indian-residential-schools-escaped-punishment

[4] Hobson, B. and Sidhartha Banerjee, for The Canadian Press. July 28, 2022. For first time on Canada trip, Pope Francis acknowledges ‘evil’ sexual abuse committed by some Catholics. Online: https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/pope-francis-to-host-mass-at-quebec-pilgrimage-site-following-second-apology

[5] Ibid

[6] Baig, Fakiha for The Canadian Press. July 29, 2022. Calls to crisis line spike after Pope’s apology for ‘deplorable evil’ of residential schools: For survivors and their families, the pontiff’s visit opened old wounds. Online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/canada-pope-france-visit-trauma-1.6536082

[7] Violence against Women Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children, Western University. May 2012. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women A Resource Document: 19.

[8] The Learning Network. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women A Resource Document. May 2012: 4.

[9] The Learning Network on Violence Against Women. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women – A Resource Document. May 2012: 18.

[10] Violence against Women Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children, Western University. May 2012. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women A Resource Document: 18.

[11] Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC). For Survivors of Sexual Assault: Common Reactions to Sexual Assault.

 Online: http://www.sexualassaultsupport.ca/support 

[12] Violence against Women Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children, Western University. May 2012. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women A Resource Document: 25.

[13] Nonomura, Robert. (2020). Trafficking at the Intersections: Racism, Colonialism, Sexism, and Exploitation in Canada. Learning Network Brief (36). London, Ontario: Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children. Online: http://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/our-work/briefs/brief-36.html: 8-9.

[14] See: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future : summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Online: https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf. See also: Nonomura, Robert. (2020). Trafficking at the Intersections: Racism, Colonialism, Sexism, and Exploitation in Canada. Learning Network Brief (36). London, Ontario: Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children. Online: http://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/our-work/briefs/brief-36.html

[15] Nonomura, Robert. (2020). Trafficking at the Intersections: Racism, Colonialism, Sexism, and Exploitation in Canada. Learning Network Brief (36). London, Ontario: Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children. Online: http://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/our-work/briefs/brief-36.html: 8-9.

[16] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future : summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Online: https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf.

[17] Deer, Ka’nhehsí:io for CBC News. June 24, 2020. Interactive project aims to map the displacement of ’60s Scoop survivors: ‘It’s about visualizing our stories and getting our stories out to the world,’ says Colleen Hele-Cardinal. Online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/sixties-scoop-displacement-map-project-1.5623989

[18] National Aboriginal Council of Midwives (NACM). 2019. Position Statement on Indigenous Child Apprehensions. Online: https://indigenousmidwifery.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/PS-IndChildApp.pdf

[19] Native Women’s Association of Canada. 2021. NWAC ’s Action Plan to End the A tack Against Indigenous Women, Girls, and Gender-Diverse People . Online: https://www.nwac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/NWAC-action-plan-FULL-ALL-EDITS.pdf. 5. 

[20] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future : summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Online: https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf: 207.

[21] Native Women’s Association of Canada. 2021. NWAC ’s Action Plan to End the A tack Against Indigenous Women, Girls, and Gender-Diverse People . Online: https://www.nwac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/NWAC-action-plan-FULL-ALL-EDITS.pdf. 4. 

[22] Canadian Association of Midwives (CAM). 2021. Canadian Association of Midwives Statement on Discovery at former Kamloops Residential School. Online: https://canadianmidwives.org/2021/06/15/canadian-association-of-midwives-statement-on-discovery-at-former-kamloops-residential-school/

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