Saying nope to the pope
Indigenous advocate explains his decision to turn down visit with Francis -- and the importance of the pope's use of the word 'genocide.'
Who among us could say they would turn down an invitation to meet and speak with the pope?
Doug George-Kanentiio, former editor of the Native news journal Akwesasne Notes and a longtime Native human rights advocate, that’s who.
“I had a chance to go to Quebec City to speak to Pope Francis,” George-Kanentiio shares today on social media regarding the pope’s recent week-long visit to Canada. “I appreciated the invitation to be one of the 22 Native people asked to meet with him privately.”
But there were some weighty conditions.
“I was told I had but one minute to summarize the concerns and recommendations of the Akwesasronon Shonatatenron (Survivors of Akwesasne) and would then be given a ‘photo op’ with the pope,” continues the Akwesasne Mohawk citizen and a residential school survivor himself.
“I declined as there was no way to adequately address the murdered and missing children, secure assurances of access to the records held by the Church, to acknowledge crimes were committed or to commit to just compensation. How could I tell him we rejected an apology without justice?
“I could not place our survivors somewhere in which others could say we were involved in the apology process, an endorsement of absolution without an admission of guilt. I declined since no changes in the Church's position on residential schools was possible in 60 seconds and a photo op would be embarrassing.”
George-Kanentiio, who is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, further notes the importance of Pope Francis’ comments about genocide, made off-script on his July 30 flight back to Rome in which he said that what happened to Indigenous children in residential boarding institutions was indeed genocide.
To George-Kanentiio, it is especially important to know whether the pope said “the Church committed genocide” or whether it was “the process itself” — the distinction is substantial to many Indigenous citizens in the Americas, especially in terms of accountability of the Catholic Church going forward, perhaps within the U.S. legal system.
According to reporters who were with the pope, his words in response to a question from an Indigenous reporter aboard his plane were:
It’s true that I did not use the word because I didn’t think of it. Yes, genocide is a technical word, but I did not use it because I did not think of it. But … yes, it was a genocide, yes, yes, clearly. You can say that I said it was a genocide.
Another translation, from Reuters:
It's true that I did not use the word because I didn't think of it. But I described genocide. I apologised, I asked forgiveness for this activity, which was genocide. I condemned this, taking children away and trying to change their culture, their minds, change their traditions, a race, an entire culture.
Pope Francis reportedly did not directly answer a follow-up question on whether he would rescind the 1493 Papal Bull and the related Doctrine of Discovery, which were effectively policy mandates from the Catholic Church that allowed for the destruction of Native peoples and culture in the name of Christianity.
George-Kanentiio has written about the importance of justice related to the Vatican many times before, and he has played an large contemporary role in elevating the discourse around the Doctrine of Discovery.
In April, he noted in an essay that the Six Nations-Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were not invited to that month to meet with Pope Francis in Rome, alongside several other Indigenous delegations.
And he said there was a good reason: “[W]e don't want an apology, we want justice.”
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