MASKWACIS, Alta. — 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 , separated families and marginalized generations.
“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. He called the school’s policy a “disastrous error” inconsistent with the gospel and said further investigation and healing were needed.
In the first event of his “week-long penitential pilgrimage,” Francis traveled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray in a cemetery, then deliver the long-awaited apology at the nearby ceremonial powow grounds. Four chiefs escorted the wheelchair-bound pontiff to the site near the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School and presented him with a feathered headdress after his speech, making him an honorary community leader.
“I humbly ask for forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against indigenous peoples,” Francis said.
His words went beyond his earlier apologies for “deplorable” missionary abuses and instead took institutional responsibility for the church’s cooperation with Canada’s “catastrophic” assimilation policy, which the Truth Commission says and reconciliation of the country, amounted to “cultural genocide”.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend government-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.
Ottawa 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 revelations prompted Francis to comply with the truth commission’s call for him to apologize on Canadian soil for the role of Catholics in the abuses; Catholic religious orders operated 66 of the country’s 139 boarding schools.
Some in the crowd on Monday wept as Francis spoke, while others clapped or remained silent as they listened to his words, which were delivered in Spanish and then translated into English.
“I waited 50 years for this apology and finally today I heard it,” said survivor Evelyn Korkmaz. “Part of me is happy, part of me is sad, part of me is numb.” She added, however, that she had hoped to hear a ‘work plan’ from the pope on what he would do next to reconcile, including the release of church records on the fate of children who died in schools. .
Many in the crowd wore traditional clothing, including skirts with colorful ribbons and native-patterned vests. Others donned orange shirts, which have become a symbol of residential school survivors, recalling the story of a woman whose beloved orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was confiscated from a school and replaced by a uniform.
“It’s something that’s needed, not just for people to hear, but for the church to be accountable,” said Sandi Harper, who traveled with her sister and a Saskatchewan church group in honor. of their late mother, who attended boarding school.
Harper called the pope’s apology “very heartfelt.”
“He recognizes that this path to reconciliation will take time, but he is truly on our side,” she said.
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.
” I was not deceived. It was quite a momentous occasion,” said Phil Fontaine, a survivor of residential school abuse and former chief of the Assembly of First Nations who went public with his story of sexual abuse in the 1990s, in an interview with the Associated Press.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who apologized last year for “incredibly harmful government policy” in organizing the residential school system, was also present along with 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 the blame, he also made it clear that the Catholic missionaries were merely cooperating and carrying out the government’s policy of assimilation, which he called a “power colonizing mentality”. Notably, he did not refer to the 15th century papal decrees that provided religious support for the European colonial powers in the first place.
Jeremy Bergen, an expert in church apology and professor of religious and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., said Francis made it clear he was asking forgiveness for the actions of “members of the church” but not of the institution as a whole.
“The idea is that, as the Body of Christ, the church itself is sinless,” he said in an email.
“So when Catholics do bad things, they’re not really acting on behalf of the church,” Bergen said, noting that it’s a controversial idea that many Catholic theologians aren’t sure about. Okay.
Francis said the policy marginalizes generations, suppresses Indigenous languages, 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 it was a disastrous mistake, 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 stops in Quebec City and Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the Far North — follows meetings Francis held in the spring at the Vatican with First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegations. These meetings culminated with Francis apologizing on April 1 for the “deplorable” abuses at residential schools and a promise to start over on Canadian soil.
Francis recalled that one of the delegations gave him a set of beaded moccasins as a symbol of children who never came home from school, and asked him to return them to Canada. François said that during these months they “carried on my feeling of grief, indignation and shame”, but that in giving them back 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, busing them and providing mental health counselors knowing the event could be traumatic for some.
Later Monday, Francis was scheduled to visit the Church of the Sacred Heart of 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 and Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.