Pope Francis on Monday issued a historic apology for the Catholic Church’s cooperation with Canada’s ‘catastrophic’ residential school policy, saying the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Christian society has destroyed their cultures, divided families and marginalized generations in ways that are still felt today.
“I am deeply sorry,” Francis said, to the applause of school survivors and members of the Indigenous community gathered at a former residential school south of Edmonton, Alberta, the first event in the “penitential pilgrimage” of a week of Francis in Canada.
The morning following his arrival in the country, François traveled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray in a cemetery. Four chiefs then escorted the pontiff in his wheelchair to the ceremonial grounds of the powwow where he delivered the long-awaited apology and received a feathered headdress.
“I humbly ask forgiveness for the wrong done by so many Christians against Indigenous peoples,” Francis said near the site of the now largely demolished former Ermineskin Indian Residential School.
His words went beyond his earlier apologies for the “deplorable” acts of the missionaries and instead took responsibility for the church’s institutional cooperation with the “catastrophic” policy of assimilation, which according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, amounted to “cultural genocide”.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and cultures. The goal was to Christianize them and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
The Canadian government has admitted physical and sexual abuse is rampant in schools, with students beaten for speaking their native language. This legacy of abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction currently on Canadian reservations.
The discovery of hundreds of potential burial sites in former schools over the past year has drawn international attention to the legacy of the schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States. The findings prompted Francis to heed the truth commission’s call to apologize on Canadian soil for the role of the Catholic Church; Catholic religious orders operated 66 of the 139 schools in Canada.
Many in Monday’s crowd wore traditional clothing, including skirts with colorful ribbons and Aboriginal-patterned vests. Others donned orange shirts, which have become a symbol of residential school survivors, recalling the story of a woman whose favorite orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was confiscated when she arrived at a school and replaced by a uniform.
Despite the solemnity of the event, the atmosphere sometimes seemed joyful: the chiefs went to the site to the sound of a hypnotic rhythm, the elders danced and the crowd applauded and chanted songs of war, chants of victory and finally a song of healing.
One of the event’s hosts, Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, said some chose to stay away — and that’s understandable. But he said it was nonetheless a historic and important day for his people.
“My deceased family members are no longer here with us, my parents went to boarding school, I went to boarding school,” he told The Associated Press as he waited for Francis to arrive. “I know they are with me, they are listening, they are watching.”
Felisha Crier Hosein traveled from Florida to attend in place of her mother, who helped establish the museum for the nearby Samson Cree Nation and had planned to attend, but died in May.
“I came here to represent her and to be here for the elders and the community,” said Hosein, who wore one of her mother’s colorful ribbon skirts.
“Sorry isn’t going to make what happened go away,” she said. “But it means a lot to the elders.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who last year issued an apology for “incredibly harmful government policy” in organizing the residential school system, was also present with the governor general and other officials.
As part of a lawsuit settlement involving the government, churches and approximately 90,000 survivors, Canada paid reparations amounting to billions of dollars transferred to Indigenous communities. The Catholic Church in Canada says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50 million in cash and in-kind and hopes to add another $30 million over the next five years.
Although the pope acknowledged institutional blame, he also made it clear that Catholic missionaries were merely cooperating and carrying out the government’s policy of assimilation, which he called a “power colonizing mentality.”
“I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the way in which many members of the Church and religious communities cooperated, notably through their indifference, with the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time, that resulted in the residential school system,” he said.
He said the policy marginalizes generations, suppresses indigenous languages, separates families, leads to physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse and “indelibly affects the relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren. “. He called for further investigation, a possible reference to indigenous requests for access to parish registers and the personal files of priests and nuns in order to identify those responsible for the abuses.
“Although Christian charity was not absent and there were many outstanding examples of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of residential school policies were catastrophic,” Francis said. “What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Americas’ first pope was determined to make the trip, even though torn knee ligaments forced him to cancel a visit to Africa earlier this month.
The six-day visit — which will also include other former school sites in Alberta, Quebec and Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the Far North — follows meetings Francis held in the spring at the Vatican with First Nations delegations , Métis and Inuit. These meetings culminated in an April 1 apology for “deplorable” abuses committed by some Catholic missionaries in residential schools and a promise by Francis to apologize in person on Canadian soil.
Francis recalled that in April, one of the delegations gave him a set of beaded moccasins as a symbol of children who never returned from school, and asked him to bring them back to Canada. François said that during these months they had “kept alive my feeling of grief, indignation and shame”, but that by returning them he hoped that they could also represent a path to walk together. .
Event organizers said they would do all they could to ensure survivors could attend the event, taking them and offering mental health counselors to be on hand, knowing that the event could be traumatic for some.
Francis acknowledged that memories can trigger old wounds and that even just being there can be traumatic, but he said remembering is important to prevent indifference.
“It is necessary to remember how devastating the policies of assimilation and emancipation, which also included the residential school system, were for the inhabitants of these lands,” he said.
Later Monday, Francis was scheduled to visit the Church of the Sacred Heart of the First Peoples, a Catholic parish in Edmonton oriented to Indigenous peoples and culture. The church, whose sanctuary was dedicated last week after being restored after a fire, incorporates indigenous language and customs into the liturgy.
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.
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