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Pope apologizes for 'evil' against Canada's Indigenous

July 25, 2022

During a landmark visit to Canada, the head of the Catholic Church apologized to Indigenous survivors for the "cultural destruction" at church-run residential schools.

Pope Francis, foreground right, sits with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during a welcoming ceremony Sunday
Francis' six-day trip follows meetings he held in the spring at the Vatican with Indigenous delegations Image: Eric Gay/AP Photo/picture alliance

Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday, for a historic visit where he personally apologized for the horrors of Catholic Church-run Indigenous residential schools.

He was met by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary May Simon, an Inuk who is Canada's first Indigenous governor general.

On Monday, the pope's first stop was in the town of Maskwacis, home to one of the country's largest residential schools.

There he spoke to an estimated of 15,000 people, including former students from across Canada.

Addressing victims in Maskwacis Monday afternoon, Pope Francis expressed his "sorrow," and implored victims to practice forgiveness, healing and reconciliation toward the Catholic Church for the role it played in Canada's Indigenous school program.

The pontiff addressed the "indignation" and "shame" he feels over the memory of the notorious mistreatment of Canada's Indigenous children.  

"I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation," the pope said.

"The place where we are gathered renews within me the deep sense of pain and remorse that I have felt in these past months," the 85-year-old pontiff said, before an Indigenous representative briefly placed a traditional headdress on the pope.

Pope Francis, wearing an Indigenous headdress, stands on a stage with Indigenous leaders
Pope Francis was gifted a traditional headdress by an Indigenous leaderImage: Gregorio Borgia/AP/picture alliance

Hundreds of people, many in traditional Indigenous clothing, were in attendance. 

Some survivors told journalists that they appreciated the "powerful" speech by Pope Francis, but demanded that the Vatican releases church records and personnel files of the priests and nuns to identify who was responsible for the abuses.

How did Indigenous and Canadian leaders react?

The pontiff's words were weighed carefully by indigenous leaders and survivors who were present.  

"An apology does not ease the pain of lost children who never returned home," said acting Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Cornell McLean. "However, we encourage the church to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation by making concrete commitments and true reparations going forward."

Survivor and indigenous lawyer Wilton Littlechild told the pope he hoped, "that our encounter this morning, and the words you share with us, will echo with true healing and real hope throughout many generations to come."

Others were exasperated by the pope's lack of specificity: "When he talks about the atrocities that the churches did on our people, he didn’t use the word 'sexual abuse' ... That’s what happened. It happened. And why did he not say that?" asked survivor Ruth Roulette.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney praised what he called, "the resilience of Indigenous Peoples in preserving their culture, as well as the goodwill of Catholics and other Canadians to both truth and reconciliation."

Kenney said real healing, "must draw upon the deep spiritual resources of Indigenous and Catholic communities in Alberta. I encourage all Albertans to join Indigenous Peoples in those prayers today."

Why is the pope apologizing? 

The pontiff has called his week long visit a "penitential pilgrimage" of "healing and reconciliation" to seek forgiveness on Canadian soil for the "evil'' done to Native peoples by Catholic missionaries.

"This is a trip of penance. Let's say that is its spirit," he told reporters at the beginning of the flight from Rome to Canada. 

In the decades spanning from late 1800s to the 1990s, nearly 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children children were sent by Canada's government to 139 residential schools run by the church as part of a failed policy of forced assimilation.

The children were severed from their families, language and culture for months or even years.

Many faced physical and sexual abuse at the hands of headmasters and teachers while thousands are believed to have died because of neglect, malnutrition and disease.

Since last year, hundreds of remains of Indigenous children in unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of former schools, with the national truth and reconciliation commission decrying "cultural genocide."

The pope, however, refrained from using the term "genocide" and instead apologized for the "cultural destruction" at the schools. 

In a shift from most papal tours, diplomatic protocols will take a back seat to personal encounters with First Nations, Metis and Inuit survivors.

Francis will end his trip with a visit to Iqaluit, Nunavut — the farthest north the 85-year-old has ever traveled — to make his apology to the Inuit community before heading back to Rome.

Jackson Pind, a historian, told DW that Indigenous people need to see "real action" and "not just words."

One action the Vatican could take is opening up the archive for researchers and other historians to find out the truth about the rampant abuse, Pind said.  

He added that the Vatican also has "a whole host of artifacts" that were taken when Indigenous people were forced into these schools that must be returned. 

Trauma experts on site

Indigenous Canadians have been both wary and hopeful ahead of the Pope's visit.

"It is an understatement to say there are mixed emotions,'' Chief Desmond Bull of the Louis Bull Tribe was quoted as saying by news agency AP.

Given the possibility of triggering memories, trauma experts will be deployed at all the events during Francis' visit to provide mental health assistance for school survivors.

"For survivors from coast to coast, this is an opportunity — the first and maybe the last — to perhaps find some closure for themselves and their families,'' said Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation.

"This will be a difficult process but a necessary one,'' he told AP.

Others see the visit by the head of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics as something that is too little too late.

"I wouldn't go out of my way to see him," Linda McGilvery with the Saddle Lake Cree Nation near Saint Paul told the AFP news agency.

"For me it's kind of too late, because a lot of the people suffered, and the priests and the nuns have now passed on."

Chief Greg Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation in northern Alberta, said the pope's visit was stirring "mixed emotions across this country.''

A school survivor, Desjarlais expressed optimism at the pope's arrival but added: "Our people have been traumatized. Some of them didn't make it home. Now I hope the world will see why our people are so hurt."

Canada's Indigenous storytellers

fb, js, dvv/wmr (AFP, AP)