From July 24 to 30, Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, was in Canada on an “apology tour” for the church’s involvement in Canada’s residential school system. This is the first papal visit to Canada in decades, and was lauded as a great moment for truth, reconciliation, and even national unity. Even though the corporate media might be united in this sentiment, the rest of the country is not.
After the discovery of unmarked graves on sites of residential schools in the summer of 2021, it took nearly a year for the pope to give any apology. Eventually, on April 1, 2022, the pope said: “For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness” (our emphasis). The phrasing of this apology makes it seem as though a few bad apples were the problem, rather than the explicit policy of the church itself, which was responsible for administering roughly 70 per cent of residential schools.
Many Indigenous people are deeply unsatisfied. Near Quebec city, protestors held a banner which read “Rescind the doctrine” directly in front of the pope on July 28. This refers to the “doctrine of discovery”, the ideological justification for the colonization of the Americas, which was invoked by European imperialist powers to seize lands inhabited by non-Christians. Other demands have also been presented to the pope, including releasing records, and monetary compensation, indicating that for many, thoughts and prayers are not enough.
The headdress and the developing split in Indigenous communities
Despite the indignation from large layers of Indigenous people, some native leaders have been quick to roll out the red carpet for his holiness. After Pope Francis’s apology at Maskwacis, Alberta, Grand Chief of the Treaty 6 First Nations Wilton Littlechild gave him a headdress. The war bonnet is a sacred item to many prairie First Nations. Being given one is an enormous sign of respect, and it typically has to be earned through high achievement in a particular community. An Indigenous elder from Maskwacis explained that, in giving him the war bonnet, Littlechild has adopted Francis as a leader of the community and a member of the tribe.
There has been no shortage of people pointing out just how outrageous this is. How is it at all appropriate to bestow such a high honor to the leader of the Catholic Church, an institution that has brought about untold damage to native communities. The full extent of the church’s crimes in Canada still has yet to be uncovered. To accept an apology—even if it is an empty, hypocritical apology—is one thing, but to celebrate the pope as some sort of hero for native people is nothing short of heinous. Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey immediately condemned the stunt, saying, “The apology is one thing—but that is celebrating this person, so what are you doing? Are you celebrating the atrocities of our people?”
What this really represents is a growing divide amongst Indigenous people. Many native workers and poor are becoming increasingly sick of performative stunts and non-apologies from figures like the pope, Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau. These people represent institutions that have oppressed us for centuries. Empty apologies that are not accompanied by serious action to reverse the damage caused by centuries of oppression is simply an attempt to absolve these oppressive institutions of responsibility.
On the other hand, we’ve seen the rise of a small but growing layer of native elites, whose interests are becoming rapidly divorced from the rest of their communities. They want to ally with representatives of the ruling class (like the pope) because in doing so they become a reliable pole of support for Canadian capitalism in Indigenous communities and seek to make a pretty penny in doing so. They wish to elevate themselves to the position of an Indigenous ruling class at the expense of poor and working class Indigenous people. Chief Littlechild is a classic example of this exact sort of elite. He was once a member of parliament for the Progressive Conservative Party, which should show exactly where his class interests lie.
While the pope is now full of apologies, he has yet to follow this up with any concrete commitments. And this is not because the church is short on cash. The Roman Catholic Church is an incredibly wealthy institution. For example, it is the largest non-governmental landowner in the world. The area of land owned by the church is more than the total area of the province of Saskatchewan. And yet whenever residential school survivors have demanded reparations for the church’s crimes of past years, the collection plate is mysteriously empty.
In 2005, the Catholic church agreed to raise $25 million for residential school survivors in an Ontario provincial court settlement. But instead of paying up, the church punted fundraising to their members, which only garnered around $4 million. Then, the church fought the court order, and got out of their legal requirement to pay the remaining $21 million in 2015. In that same amount of time, they managed to find nearly $300 million for new church construction and renovation. The Church spent as much money in Windsor Ontario alone as it did on residential school survivors. Meanwhile, 81 per cent of Canadians correctly believe that the Catholic Church is liable for the damage caused by residential schools.
Release the records
Another key demand on the Catholic Church is the release of all records relating to residential schools. These documents almost certainly contain indicting information that would lead to the criminal prosecution of members of the church. Allegations of covering up sexual abuse have rocked the church in the United States recently, and now some members are facing charges.
The Church has been adamant about not releasing any documentation in the past, but have recently changed their tune under pressure. The head archivist for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) recently returned from Rome, where they were given access to some records, but there is no indication that there will be “Full access to church records and documents” as has been demanded.
A representative for the church cited “government regulations” as a reason why the records could not be released. Church policy states that personal records will be protected for up to 50 years after a priest has died, allowing any of the “bad apples” to escape the consequences of their crimes. This is in stark contrast to how justice is dispensed against Indigenous people by the state for the simple crime of standing up against capitalist intrusion on their lands.
Rescind the doctrine
The demand to “rescind the doctrine” has become front-and-centre in the wake of the pope’s visit. As mentioned, protests in Quebec City featured a banner demanding the church rescind the doctrine literally to the pope’s face. One of those protestors told CBC news, “Indigenous people are looking for action and our elders have very little time left to see that action.” Just like the papal apology, attempts to pressure the church to rescind the doctrine can best be compared to pulling teeth—painful, arduous, and time consuming.
The reason the Vatican has been so hesitant to act, even in the most symbolic way, is that no one knows what forces might be unleashed should the doctrine of discovery be revoked. After all, all private property, all crown land, and all of Canadian capitalism is founded on the doctrine of discovery. The establishment of Canada, first as a colony of Great Britain, then as an independent country, is based on the seizure of land inhabited by Indigenous peoples, their confinement in reservations, and genocide. For the initial grounds of all these things to be simply thrown out would bring up some glaring contradictions in Canadian society. After all, If the land which all the Catholic churches sit on was taken on the grounds of a false doctrine, shouldn’t that land be given back?
The impact this would have on the Canadian legal system, especially in the case of land claims, could be extraordinary. Historically, the courts have ruled in an intentionally vague manner when it comes to the rights or title of Indigenous land claims. One example is the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia case, where the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Wet’suwet’en people had not given up the rights and title to a large swathe of their traditional territory, which was never ceded by treaty, never purchased by the state, and never conquered in a war. Yet the State still claims that the land in question is in fact crown land. The ruling of the court left defining the rights or title the Wet’suwet’en had to the land to be dealt with in the future.
Ultimately the courts and legal system in any given capitalist country are institutions of bourgeois law. They exist to serve the ruling class and their system. This includes mediating disputes between capitalists, setting legal standards for capitalism to operate within, and curbing the worst excesses of society to maintain a veneer of justice and fairness over the reality of oppression and exploitation. Sometimes, when the contradictions of class society have built up, and the credibility of capitalism or the state is in jeopardy, the legal system can act as a relief valve for the pressure of one class or group struggling against another. One recent example of this was when a B.C. Supreme Court Judge denied an application to extend an injunction against the Fairy Creek blockaders on behalf of a logging company. This happened because police were too brazen and violent towards protestors, while the memory of the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 was not too distant. When it comes to the Indigenous movement, the courts have been careful to walk a fine line. On the one hand, a ruling recognizing Wet’suwet’en title over their traditional territory would put an end to multiple pipeline projects, but on the other, a ruling denying title could provoke the Indigenous movement into action, unleashing forces beyond their control. Throw into this equation a total rejection of the doctrine of discovery, and the injustice of the justice system towards Indigenous people would be all the more obvious.
This is not to mention that a purely symbolic revocation of the doctrine of discovery would incite demands for concrete action, just as the papal apology has. People are tired of thoughts and prayers. Neither thoughts nor prayers feed, clothe, or shelter anyone. While Indigenous people still suffer from absurdly high rates of poverty, homelessness, addiction, and incarceration, real, material change is necessary.
It is clear that the Catholic church, by dragging their feet, not releasing records, not compensating survivors despite their word, and not rescinding the doctrine of discovery, is not an institution that can play a positive role in Indigenous liberation. The Pope’s apology should be seen for what it is: an attempt by the capitalist establishment to save face while doing nothing concrete to alleviate the suffering they have caused. The fact is that no matter what the pope says, conditions on reserves are not getting better, poverty in Indigenous communities is not getting better, and the treatment of Indigenous peoples by the Canadian state is not getting better.
It is possible that under mass pressure, the pope and the Catholic church may carry out a symbolic renunciation of the doctrine of discovery. But words are only words. Historically, the doctrine of discovery represented the ideological justification for the very material robbing of Indigenous people. In Marxist terms, the doctrine of discovery was the ideological justification for the primitive accumulation of capital which represented the birth of the capitalist system itself.
As Marx himself explained:
“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”
While the doctrine of discovery is thoroughly reactionary and should be rescinded, we should not lose sight of the fact that this was only the ideological justification for the birth of capitalism. For there to be real change, we must attack the very real material foundations of the oppression of Indigenous peoples, both historically and today: the capitalist system.