Limitations of saying sorry: the Pope’s apology for Canada’s Indian Residential Schools

At the beginning of April 2022, tireless advocacy of Indigenous organizations in Canada finally bore fruit as Pope Francis apologized for the role of “a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities” in the harm caused to Indigenous peoples in the country through Indian Residential Schools. The apology took place during the visit of an Indigenous delegation to Vatican that had been planned since the discoveries of unmarked graves at several old residential schools in the summer of 2021. 

The residential school system was operated jointly by the Canadian government and various churches from the 1880s until the late decades of the 1900s, with the purpose of assimilation of Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian settler society by removing them from the cultural influence of their homes. 

The grave findings in the summer of 2021 were followed with public reactions of shock, sorrow and anger, accompanied by calls for accountability of the state and the churches responsible for the operation of the schools. Spotlight hit particularly on the Catholic Church, the only one of these entities that by that time had not formally apologized for its role in the school system.  

How does an institution apologize

Representatives of residential school survivors and Indigenous organization in Canada have been calling for an apology from the Catholic Church already for years. A call for an apology was also included in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released in 2015, specifying that the Pope should deliver an apology on Canadian soil. 

In response to the news of the first grave findings at the beginning of the summer, Pope Francis expressed his sorrow for the findings but still did not offer an apology. This withdrawal from apology evoked strong condemnation from several directions, from representatives of residential school survivors and Indigenous organizations to the Canadian government. Also individual Catholic bishops and priests in Canada have called for a papal apology. The Pope has previously commented that he is not able to personally apologize for the role of the Catholic Church regarding residential schools.  

Discussing political apologies for history of colonization, Tom Bentley (2016) reminds that an apology performed by the leader of a political community or institution should not be confused with an expression of personal guilt. In their comments on the Pope’s statement at the wake of the grave discoveries, several Indigenous leaders accordingly stressed the Pope’s obligation as the head of the Catholic Church to respond for wrongs committed under the institution.  

Embracing or delimiting responsibility?

When the Pope finally delivered the apology this month, it evoked mixed reactions. 

While the apology was welcomed by several Indigenous commentators as a significant acknowledgement and a step forward with repairing relations with the Catholic Church, it was also heavily criticized for not addressing the institutional role of the Church in operating residential schools.  

In the apology, the Pope acknowledged the damaging impact of colonization on Indigenous peoples, including intergenerational harm caused through residential schools to wellbeing of families and communities, cultural identity, and transmission of knowledge and language from one generation to another. However, the apology pointed at wrongful actions of individual members of the Church as the source of that harm and thus carefully avoided admission of any kind of institutional responsibility. 

This illustrates a common observation within scholarship on political apology : while apologies are powerful performative acts that affirm responsibility of an institutional actor for wrongs committed in its name, they may also delimit that responsibility by covering only certain aspects of a complex, systemic injustice (see e.g., Bentley 2016, Uusihakala 2019). 

After the apology: figuring the next steps

When interviewed by CBC on his view of the apology, residential school survivor and a former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine reminded that it is up to each survivor to determine what they make of the apology.  

However, what appears to be largely agreed upon is that apology alone bears little significance if it will not be accompanied by concrete actions. The Indigenous delegates who received the apology also had several other issues on their agenda, including the incomplete contribution of the Catholic Church to financial compensation of residential school survivors and other means by which the Church is hoped to address its role in colonization, such as land returns. 

In any case, as spoke persons of the delegation and several residential school survivors have underlined in their comments, the apology is only the start of a long journey. The next step of it will be seen in July, when the Pope is expected to travel to Canada to visit Indigenous communities and possibly expand on the apology. 


Bentley, T. 2016. Empires of Remorse. Narrative, Postcolonialism and Apologies for Colonial Atrocity. London: Routledge. 

Uusihakala, K. 2019. Revising and Re-voicing a Silenced Past: Transformative Intentions and Selective Silences in a Public Apology to British Child Migrants. Suomen Antropologi 44 (1), pp.51-69.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.