Response on Papal Apology Motion concerning Residential Schools

Imagine my surprise opening last week’s Sherwood Park News to see the headline “Genuis blocks papal apology”. No politician has wielded such power over papal pronouncements for at least several centuries.

The truth behind this somewhat misleading headline is that last week I opposed an NDP motion regarding the Pope, the Catholic Church, and residential schools. I was not, contrary to the implication of the article, the only MP to take this position.

This motion was presented as a request for “unanimous consent”. This means that one person stands up in the House of Commons, at an irregular time and potentially without notice, and seeks the unanimous agreement of Parliament on some issue. There is in this case never any debate or discussion on the issue and no vote is taken. The Speaker simply looks around to see if there is unanimous consent or not. Usually when a unanimous consent motion is proposed only one person says no – not necessarily because nobody else holds the same opinion, but because there is no need for further people to speak up because it has already been established that there is not unanimous agreement. The implication that this was a 337-1 vote is not at all correct. Again, no vote was taken, nor would it have been.

The issue raised by this motion was not about the residential school system itself – which we can all agree was terrible and which I wrote about specifically in my last local column. The motion was also not about churches needing to play a role in reconciliation. All of the churches involved (including the Catholic Church) have been working with Indigenous communities for decades on reconciliation. This work has included many important steps, such as apologies from all of the local religious entities involved. More information here and here. There are still critical steps ahead to respond to the more recent calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The NDP motion, though, was about whether Parliament and government should set the terms of Indigenous-Catholic dialogue. That is, whether reconciliation is best pursued through Parliamentary directive or through encounter and dialogue between the parties. The NDP motion singled out one faith community and contained a series of specific steps that should be taken, instead of pointing to the need for dialogue between parties.

For many reasons I hope to see the Catholic Church continue to walk a path of dialogue and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. I also believe that it is not right or effective for the Parliament of Canada to try to stick its head into that dialogue. Governments should be supporting this process from the sidelines but should not demand to insert themselves into it by dictating processes or outcomes. Doing so violates the separation that should exist between political and religious institutions, but it also hurts the effectiveness of the dialogue itself. “Sorry” only means “sorry” when it happens through dialogue and not as the result of pressure.

There’s also one important detail that affirms this point, which was not made public until this past Friday (coincidentally, the same day that the Sherwood Park News story was published). As reported by Global News, Indigenous and Catholic leaders have actually been engaged in private dialogue for years in preparation for a direct meeting between Indigenous leaders, residential school survivors, and the Pope. This meeting would probably have already happened if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. This renewed dialogue directly followed the Truth and Reconciliation call for a Papal Apology on Canadian soil.

It is not surprising that this private dialogue has been happening, that the pandemic caused delays, or that politicians have been generally kept out of the loop, since many politicians have shown more of an interest in grandstanding than in facilitating genuine dialogue. Parliament should work to get its own house in order and not play the role of a meddlesome in-law in Indigenous-Catholic relations – it doesn’t work, it doesn’t help, and it isn’t needed. Friday’s confirmation of ongoing Catholic-Indigenous dialogue clearly affirm the value of letting dialogue happen without outside interference.

Following comments on Twitter and in the Sherwood Park News, some preferred instant criticism of my approach, but I have also appreciated the opportunity to hear from many people with thoughtful ideas about how to advance reconciliation on all fronts. If you would like to share your ideas with me, please reach out to my office. I am listening.

Truly representing a community means listening and engaging. However, it does not mean cowering in the face of misleading presentation and slander. I am hopeful about the direction of Indigenous-Catholic dialogue. I am hopeful that additional steps will be taken very soon. And, I will continue to encourage Parliamentarians to affirm this dialogue, while taking real action in our own areas of direct responsibility.