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Canada's Indigenous people call for action from church

July 26, 2022

On a trip to Canada, Pope Francis has asked Indigenous residential school survivors for forgiveness for the serious abuse and erasure of identity and culture that they endured. But is an apology enough?

Pope Francis and a Canadian indigenous leader
Pope Francis was gifted a traditional headdress made by Willie Littlechild, an indigenous activistImage: Vatican press office/AFP

Pope Francis on Monday issued a much-anticipated apology for the "evil committed by so many Christians" in Canada's "catastrophic" residential school system for indigenous children. 

"I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the cooperation of many members of the church ... in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation," he said, addressing survivors and indigenous community members gathered near a former residential school south of Edmonton, in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The gathering marked the first leg of the pontiff's "penitential pilgrimage," a six-day trip to Canada aimed at expressing regret for the Catholic Church's role in schools meant to assimilate Indigenous children and where thousands were subjected to serious abuse.

Indigenous leaders present at the meeting with Francis accepted the church's apology, many welling up with emotion, but said their people expect him to take further steps toward reparations.

'A powerful moment'

Canada's residential school system has a dark history. In the early 19th century, the government forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families to take them to residential institutions under the church's administration.

The schools were meant to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Christian society, effectively stripping them of their identity, culture and language. The last school only shut down in 1998.

In 2015, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that thousands of children endured physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in these church-run schools which were funded by the government.

Thousands of children are believed to have died under deplorable conditions at the schools and many were buried in unmarked graves on school grounds.

The old picture of Native Canadian child
Thousands of children died in residential schools after being separated from their parents and subjected to serious abuseImage: Jason Franson/AP/picture alliance

The pope kicked off his visit to a local cemetery that holds the remains of some Indigenous children who died in residential schools. He then stopped to pray at the site of a former school, where tents were erected where the notorious building once stood.

“Witnessing that moment for me was really powerful," Brandi Morin, an Indigenous journalist and the granddaughter of one of the survivors, present at the site, told DW. "I saw the joy on people's faces that this day has finally come to indigenous territories."

'Just a beginning'

Morin has spent many years interviewing and covering the stories of survivors. "This is  a big step ahead," she said, "but it's just a beginning." 

Canada's Indigenous people made a list of demands  years ago, but most of them have remained unsettled.

Bringing all the abusers to justice is one of them, Morin said. She mentioned Johannes Rivoire as an example, a priest accused of molesting Inuit children when teaching in a residential school. He now lives in France despite the arrest warrant issued for him in Canada. "He's now living comfortably at a Catholic-run nursing home and France won't extradite him," Morin said, adding that Inuit leaders have asked Pope Francis to help extradite him to Canada to face trial.

There is also the payment of reparation money to the victims and their families, which is still pending. Under a landmark class action settlement in 2006, the Catholic Church, which ran two-thirds of the residential schools, committed to raising 25 million Canadian dollars in cash contributions as compensation, but only 1.2 million of it has been paid to date.

Pope francis in front of teepees
In his "penance pilgrimage," Pope Francis will tour indigenous communities in Canada for a weekImage: PRESS OFFICE VATICAN MEDIA/ANSA/picture alliance

Indigenous people have also called on the Vatican to rescind the "Doctrine of Discovery," a series of decrees issued by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the 15th century, at the prime of the exploration age, which legitimized and encouraged colonialization of other lands, subjugation of their inhabitants, and converting them to Christianity.

"The communities and their leaders have also asked that the Vatican returned their stolen artifacts and cultural items that are held in the Vatican Museums," Morin said.

After Francis's first statements many were disappointed that he did not address sexual abuse, which was rampant in the boarding schools, Morin noted. 

The Vatican more accepting of its past

As the wealthiest and perhaps most powerful religious institution in the world, the Roman Catholic Church has long faced allegations of oppressing other communities. 

In 2015, for example, during a trip to Bolivia, Pope Francis asked forgiveness from the Indigenous peoples of Latin America for the many crimes committed by the Catholic Church during the "so-called conquest" of the continent.

"The case of Canadian boarding schools is significant because it brings together cases of spiritual and sexual abuse, cultural genocide and colonialism, which formerly were seen as separate matters," Massimo Faggioli, Vatican expert and professor of theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania told DW.

But in recent years, especially since Francis became pope, the Church has been more open to critically reviewing its past.

An indigenous man dances before the Pope
Pope Francis had already received a delegation of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, in Vatican on April 1, 2022Image: Vatican Media/Catholic Press Photo/IPA/ABACAPRESS/picture alliance

Still, the institution faces many complexities and limitations when it comes to fully acknowledging its record and compensation for victims. 

"The church is not a monolithic body, with its divisions at varying stages of reckoning with their past," Faggioli said. "Within the Catholic Church, there are voices that deem evangelization as a violent, colonial project; something entirely evil."

Others are unsettled by this view saying that it downplays all the positive things that the church has done and is doing in Indigenous communities around the world. Nevertheless, Faggioli holds that there is a growing tendency in the Vatican for making up for past mistakes, as long as it does not dismiss the positive impact that the church has had.

Both Morin and Faggioli say that full reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Canadian Indigenous peoples will take years, even generations. Native Canadians, according to Morin, need time to go through a grieving process,  as new mass graves are discovered around the former schoolsnow and then.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church needs to do more to address abuse allegations, while constructively engaging in investigating other cases elsewhere in the world.

The papal visit is an important milestone for both sides, they said.

Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar