Pope Francis apologizes for ‘catastrophic’ school policy in Canada
MASKWACIS, Alta. — Pope Francis on Monday issued a historic apology for the Catholic Church’s cooperation with Canada’s “catastrophic” policy on residential schools, 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 cheers from 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.
“I humbly ask forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against indigenous peoples,” Francis said.
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 Canada’s “catastrophic” assimilation policy, which the Truth 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 the Catholic Church 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.
“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 church group from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to honoring their late mother, who went to 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.
Many wore traditional clothing, including skirts with colorful ribbons and native-patterned waistcoats. 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.
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.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, who was a student at Ermineskin School and later served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, greeted Francis at the start of the ceremony and told people the pontiff understood their pain.
“We sincerely hope that our meeting this morning and the words you share with us will resonate with true healing and true home through many generations to come,” he said.
Felisha Crier Hosein came from Florida to attend in place of her mother, who helped establish the museum for the neighboring Samson Cree Nation and had planned to attend, but died in May.
“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 apologized last year 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.
While the pope acknowledged institutional blame, he also clarified 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, in the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time. , which resulted in the residential school system,” he said.
He 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. Francis said that during these months they “kept alive my sense of grief, outrage and shame”, but that in giving them back he hoped 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.
Francis acknowledged that memories can trigger old wounds and even his mere presence can be traumatic, but he said remembering was important in preventing indifference.
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.