Opinion: Vote shines light on church hypocrisy

In this collision between church and state, the state scored an overwhelming victory.

In fact, Tuesday was a good day for our members of Parliament.

When MPs voted (nearly) unanimously to call on Pope Francis to issue a formal papal apology for the abuses at Catholic-run residential schools, they were shining a bright light on the hypocrisy of the Canadian Catholic Bishops and their needle-threading with the English language.

The motion carries no legal weight and there is no indication that it will change any minds at the Vatican or, more importantly, the bishops who don’t believe it is possible for the Pope to respond.

But when MPs put partisan concerns aside, voting together to pressure the church to act on a call to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that church should be embarrassed.

The motion was brought by NDP MP Charlie Angus, a tireless Indigenous advocate in the Commons, but the most eloquent words came from a colleague who didn’t speak during debate last week.

New Democrat Romeo Saganash rose in the Commons to explain his silence, even though he was the seconder of Angus’s motion.

“The reason for that is pretty simple,’’ he said. “I have gone to residential school, 10 years in my case. When people are being invited to speak about that experience, they are being invited to relive that trauma. I was not prepared to do that. I do not think I am capable of doing that.”

The bishops have hidden behind the church structure in Canada as a means of justifying a lack of papal apology, saying the schools were run by separate church entities. They have danced around with doublespeak, without clearly explaining why Francis could not issue an apology to those who suffered at the schools.

He has apologized to the Irish victims of sexual abuse and to Indigenous people of the Americas for the sins of colonialism.

But the call to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “to issue an apology to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools,” is apparently too narrow and not something to which the Pope could respond.

The church also took advantage of a legal error to get out of its obligation to raise $25 million for healing programs for residential survivors. It raised only $3.7 million before it was inadvertently left off the hook, although the church maintained it had used “best efforts.”

Two-thirds of Canada’s residential schools were Catholic-run but all other denominations have apologized and fulfilled their financial obligations under the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

MPs were exceedingly polite and deferential in their debate, making sure it was understood that they were merely “asking” the Pope for an apology or inviting him to visit, but all spoke of the value of an apology and what it can to do to ease some of the suffering.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had personally invited the Pope to visit Canada and apologize, and has expressed disappointment at the response.

B.C. New Democrat Rachel Blaney spoke of her grandmother, who went to a residential school from age 4 to 16, and her husband, who also attended for many years.

Another British Columbia MP, Conservative Cathy McLeod, worked as a nurse in a First Nations community and talked of the pain, the addiction and the suicides that were a legacy of the residential school system.

The 10 Conservatives who chose not to vote for the motion will have to explain that to their constituents, although one, Saskatchewan MP Garnett Genuis, had already denied unanimous approval on a voice vote, explaining he did not think Parliament should be telling the church how to approach reconciliation.

But MPs should be voting to back a finding of the TRC, and it wouldn’t have to try to tell the church what to do if that church was acting responsibly.

This wasn’t a clash of church and state.

It was a day when Canada’s Parliamentarians did the right thing.

Tim Harper is a former Star reporter and a freelance columnist.

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