This Canadian cleric has been a ‘bridge’ between the Vatican and Indigenous people. And he, too, wants to hear an apology from Pope Francis


Warning: This story discusses residential schools and the abuse that took place there.

Archbishop of Regina Donald Bolen has worked with both the Vatican and Canada’s Indigenous communities for years to make the upcoming visit to Pope Francis possible.

Like many Canadians, the 61-year-old Saskatchewan native, who has been involved in justice issues in all his adult life, only started to see and hear the Indigenous experience and suffering from colonization and the Indian residential schools during the truth and reconciliation process that started in 2008.

On the eve of the Canadian delegates’ historical meeting with the Pope, Bolen speaks with the Star about his hopes of what delegation would accomplish.

How are you feeling about the upcoming trip with the Indigenous delegation to the Vatican?

I’m looking forward to it, nervous. It’s years in the planning, and it’s got the possibility of really helping us to take a step forward reconciliation and healing.

Meeting with the Pope is a big event. I saw a lot of balls in the air in terms of organizing an event like this. But I’m profoundly hopeful, having been working hard for this for years.

Archbishop of Regina Donald Bolen, left, met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2017.

You’re trying to learn a new way of working together with Indigenous people, trying to listen deeply to the stories of survivors and to hear the experience of residential schools, to apologize where it’s appropriate and to find ways to build reconciliations and restore trust.

Do you want the Pope to apologize?

The request is not just coming through the truth and reconciliation process, but in many conversations, a request that Pope Francis be engaged in this conversation, that he hears the stories of survivors and the suffering that were experienced in the schools, and that he’ I will be able to respond directly.

So the trip is the opportunity for that to happen in a first instance. Of course, when the Pope comes back (to Canada) it will be a further opportunity. But for survivors to speak their experiences in the presence of the Pope, for him to hear, for him to respond, as I know he will with empathy, with compassion, that’s what the trip is about at his heart.

The Indigenous people that I am in frequent contact with want to hear him say, “I am profoundly sorry for what happened for the Catholic Church’s co-operation with the project of assimilation, which deprived Indigenous peoples of a language, culture, spirituality. I am profoundly sorry for the way in which the church became embroiled in the colonization project, which left Indigenous peoples deeply marginalized.”

Many of them want to hear him say the Catholic Church in Canada needs to engage with you, needs to work with you, needs to accompany your needs to stand in solidarity with you, needs to support your legitimate efforts in the pursuit of justice needs to celebrate the richness of your traditions and your spirituality and your ways and means to find creative direct way in supporting you.

How do you see this moment in time with regards to the church’s reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people?

When you talk to survivors, you hear them saying, we’re getting older and there are survivors dying every year. So if you wanted to respond to our suffering and what we experienced and you want us to get closure, act quickly.

I think it’s more this Pope rather than any past or previous or future pope — there’s a window of opportunity they have. For many survivors, this is the opportunity. They’re not going to be around 10 years from now.

How do you see your role between the Vatican and the Indigenous community that you’ve served?

Before the church is an institution, it’s a community. It’s a mission. I don’t see the Pope so much as a boss but the center of unity for us as a community. And so I see my role, in part, (as) called to serve Indigenous people and to respond to their legitimate needs and to accompany them and walk with them.

It’s a challenge, but a privilege to be a bridge, a bridge with the Vatican and the Pope and also a bridge with the church of the past. I think the whole complexity of the task is to live the present, be honest about the past and to walk together and (take) as good a way as possible to find the steps toward healing and reconciliation that we can take within our capacity, and to take them.

Do you have any idea what the Pope is going to say, if he’s going to apologize for the church?

The Pope will say what the Pope will say. Nobody’s scripted (it) for him

What’s next after this delegation to Rome and after the Pope’s visit to Canada?

The big next steps are what needs to happen locally, what needs to happen in communities all over the country where steps for reconciliation may need it. And that’s the challenge for us in Saskatchewan, just like it’s a challenge for people everywhere.

That’s what really got the potential to bring change in the communities. And I look forward to follow those next steps.

It’s going to mean that First Nations communities are respected and we take steps to end the systemic injustice and racism which mark our society.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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