The Centre Cannot Hold: Why the Pope’s holding statement on residential schools fails

Warning: This post contains distressing content.

On June 6th, Pope Francis’ Twitter account posted the following:

“I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatised by shocking discovery of the remains of two hundred and fifteen children, pupils at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

These difficult times are a strong call for everyone to turn away from the colonial model and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.”

This statement came in response to the calls from Indigenous communities, leaders, and Canada’s federal government for an official apology for the role the Catholic Church played in Canada’s residential school system.

By all objective measures, this statement is not an apology. No one, including the Catholic Church, is pretending that it is. In the world of public-facing statements, writing an apology is easy. If that were the intent here, it would be a fairly straight-forward editing job. (See here for why apologies are critical forms of communication, particularly in a crisis).

That doesn’t mean making an apology is easy; the opposite is true. It requires a true understanding and acceptance of one’s accountability and complicity in a wrong, and a willingness not only to bear the consequences but also to make changes. Apologies require deep, heavy institutional labour. Whoever holds the pen on an apology statement is given the gift that all communications professionals seek: substance.

I would call the Pope’s post a “holding statement” — the term used by public relations professionals for the first response issued when a crisis strikes. Holding statements avoid the heavy lifting, postponing the hard choices for another day.

Unlike apologies, holding statements are usually hard to craft. We use them in the first moments after a disaster, when we do not know all the facts, have not been able to assess the situation, and have yet to decide what course to take.

The morality of the Church avoiding or postponing an apology in light of the historic truth about residential schools is troubling. But leaving that aside for the moment, that decision left the Church with two options: (1) say nothing; or (2) issue a holding statement. It appears they chose option two and did it poorly.

An effective holding statement generally includes three core components:

  1. Empathy: It acknowledges the pain and suffering of those affected by the crisis. It grounds itself in a meaningful understanding of who has experienced harm, and the nature of the harm.
  2. Facts (as we know them): It then establishes our understanding of the facts. What has happened? What do we know and not know? What more information do we need to learn?
  3. Action (or explanation of inaction): Finally, the holding statement explains our next steps. This could mean conferring with experts or those impacted, waiting for an investigation to conclude, engaging the appropriate authorities, or assessing the scale of damage. There are also situations where we legitimately can take no action. Perhaps it is not in our authority or jurisdiction to act. Perhaps there is literally nothing we can do. If that’s the case, we have to find a way to communicate that.

Pope Francis’ holding statement fails on all three accounts.

Empathy: The Pope’s statement centres on the trauma of “Canadian people.” The statement fails to mention Indigenous people, the Tk’emúps te Secwépemc nation or the families of the 215 children who never came home from the Kamloops Residential School. Did the Pope believe these families, this community, would see themselves reflected in the broad category of “Canadian people” identified in this statement? This omission is either deliberate or reflects a stunning lack of cultural, historical, and contextual intelligence.

Facts as we know them: The statement refers to the “shocking discovery” of the children’s remains. While it is true that many Canadians were shocked, this language obfuscates facts that the Catholic Church would know if it studied the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a fact that thousands of children died at residential schools. It is also a fact that these schools buried children in both marked and unmarked graves. Finally, it is a fact that the community of Tk’emúps te Secwépemc was actively searching for these children on the grounds of this school. Anyone who has listened to those in mourning would have heard that, of all the complex and overwhelming emotions community members are experiencing, shock is not one of them.

The statement also leaves many key facts out: the facts of who ran this particular school, and the facts of the Catholic Church’s involvement in this case and in Canada’s residential school system. When we write holding statements, we choose which facts to acknowledge. Did the Church consider those facts irrelevant, inconvenient, or simply too risky to state? When the public is left to wonder whether the contents of your statement were chosen out of ignorance or cowardice, that is a sign that your statement—whatever its intent—is unlikely to work.

Action: The second part of the Pope’s statement speaks to action—but unfortunately not his own. He calls on “everyone” to reject the colonial model and to walk side-by-side. Who is everyone? There is no commitment to any next step that the Catholic Church might take to examine how it can support “mutual respect and recognition.” By making decolonization everyone’s responsibility, the Pope makes it no one’s, and certainly not the Church’s. Worse, he lays the burden equally on those impacted by this specific tragedy and hundreds of years of colonization.

The result is a statement that repeats the colonial legacy it condemns, prolonging grief and harm. Our best hope is that this really is a “holding statement” in the true sense of that term. A temporary message. It’s hard to fathom why the Pope would make this his final word and legacy on residential schools. If ever there were a moment for the Church to act with courage and love, it’s now.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools. A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Learn more about how you can support Tḱemlúps te Secwepemc and honour the 215 lives lost by taking action.

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