The Pope’s apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system should be seen only as a first step in its efforts toward reconciliation, says a University of Guelph political scientist who has written extensively on Canada’s residential schools. 

Dr. David MacDonald

Dr. David MacDonald teaches political science in U of G’s College of Social and Applied Human Sciences, focusing on comparative Indigenous politics in Canada. His publications on Canada’s residential school system include his 2019 book, The Sleeping Giant Awakes: Genocide, Indian Residential Schools and the Challenge of Conciliation. He also worked as a consultant for the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 

Noting he cannot speak for the survivors or Indigenous peoples, MacDonald said the Pope’s apology does not fully address the Catholic Church’s institutional role in the residential school system. Specifically, he said, “the Church institutions, and the idea of converting Indigenous children to Catholicism, and the entire structure of the Catholic Church as a hierarchical organization which sought to deprive Indigenous peoples of their own languages and cultures and spiritual traditions” were not adequately discussed.  

“The Church apologizes but should not have been creating these coercive institutions in the first place,” he added. “It is not enough to apologize for individual crimes – collective responsibility is key.” 

‘Serious actions need to accompany any apology’ 

The apology also fails to address the Catholic hierarchy’s obstruction in covering up the abuse and denigration of those who spoke about its abuses, said MacDonald. It also did not acknowledge its withholding of information and funding from survivors.   

“The Church needs to apologize not only for the crimes of the residential schools but the crimes that occurred after,” he said.  

It needs to include financial redress for survivors, free and frank disclosure of documents related to the residential schools, and apologies for covering up and shielding the perpetrators, downplaying the abuse and crimes, and the court battles undertaken to reduce responsibility and liability.  

“It must repudiate the doctrines and beliefs and tactics and processes and mindsets which caused it to commit great harm over five centuries and more,” he said. 

If the Pope travels to Canada as part of the TRC’s calls to action, the Vatican should pay for the trip, which MacDonald said he has heard could cost about $60 million.   

“We should not be obliged to pay any funding towards the Vatican coming to Canada to issue this apology,” said MacDonald. “It should not be spent on security and accommodation and transport costs for one of the world’s richest institutions, which has made much of its riches through morally questionable means. That money should be going to the survivors and their families.” 

MacDonald is available for interviews. 


Dr. David MacDonald