Pope apologizes for ‘catastrophic’ school abuse in Canada
Pope Francis on Monday issued a historic apology for the Catholic Church’s collusion with Canada’s “disastrous” policiesand said the forced assimilation of indigenous people into Christian society destroyed their cultures, separated families and marginalized generations in a way that is still being felt today.
“I am deeply sorry,” Francis said to applause from school survivors and members of the Indigenous community gathered at a former boarding school south of Edmonton, Alberta, the first episode of Francis’ week-long “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada.
The morning after arriving in the country, Francis traveled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray in a cemetery. Four chiefs then escorted the pope in his wheelchair to the powwow ceremonial grounds, where he delivered the long-awaited apology and received a feathered headdress.
“I humbly seek forgiveness for the evil that so many Christians have committed against indigenous peoples,” Francis said near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, now mostly demolished.
His words went beyond his earlier apologies for the missionaries’ “regrettable” actions and instead took responsibility for the church’s institutional collaboration with “disastrous” assimilation policies that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide.”
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century through the 1970s to isolate them from the influence of their homeland and culture. The goal was to Christianize them and integrate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in schools, with students being beaten for speaking their mother tongue. This legacy of this abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a major cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on Canadian reservations.
The discoveries of hundreds of potential burial sites at former schools over the past year have loomed largeon the legacy of schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States. The discoveries prompted Francis to comply with a request from the Truth Commission to apologize on Canadian soil for the role of the Catholic Church. Catholic religious orders operated 66 of Canada’s 139 schools.
Many in the crowd on Monday wore traditional clothing, including brightly colored ribbon skirts and vests with indigenous motifs. Others wore orange shirts, which have become a symbol for home school survivors, and evokes the story of a woman whose favorite orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was confiscated upon arrival at a school and replaced with a uniform.
Despite the solemnity of the event, the atmosphere at times seemed upbeat: chiefs marched into the venue to a hypnotic drumbeat, elders danced, and the crowd cheered and sang war songs, victory songs, and finally a healing song.
One of the event’s hosts, Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, said some chose to stay away – and that was understandable. But he said it was still a historic, 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 while awaiting Francis’ arrival. “I know they are with me, they are listening, they are watching.”
Felisha Crier Hosein traveled from Florida to attend on behalf of her mother, who had helped set up the museum for nearby Samson Cree Nation and had planned to attend but died in May.
“I came here to represent them and to be here for the elders and the community,” said Hosein, who wore one of her mother’s colorful bow-tie 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 apologized last year for “incredibly harmful government policies” in organizing the boarding school system, was also present along with the governor-general and other officials.
As part of a court case involving the government, churches and some 90,000 survivors, Canada paid billions in reparations that were wired to indigenous communities. Canada’s Catholic Church says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50 million in cash and in-kind donations and hope to add another $30 million over the next five years.
While acknowledging institutional guilt, the Pope also made it clear that Catholic missionaries were merely cooperating with and implementing the government’s assimilationist policies, which he described as the “colonization mentality of the powers that be”.
“In particular, I ask forgiveness for the way in which many members of the Church and religious communities participated, not least through their indifference, in the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time, which were carried out in the system of boarding schools”, he said.
He said the policies have marginalized generations, suppressed indigenous languages, separated families, led to physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse and “indelibly damaged relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren.” He called for further investigations, a possible indication of indigenous demands for more access to church records and personal files of priests and nuns to determine who was responsible for the abuse.
“Although Christian charity was not lacking and there were many outstanding cases of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies surrounding the boarding schools were disastrous,” Francis said. “Our Christian faith tells us that this was a fatal error inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The first pope from America was determined to make the trip, although a knee ligament tear 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 City and Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the far north, follows meetings Francis held at the Vatican earlier in the year with First Nations, Metis and Inuit delegations. These meetings culminated in an April 1 apology for the “regrettable” abuses committed by some Catholic missionaries at boarding schools and a promise by Francis to personally apologize on Canadian soil.
Francis recalled that in April one of the delegations presented him with a set of beaded moccasins as a symbol of the children who never returned from school and asked him to bring them back to Canada. Francis said that during these months they have “kept alive my feelings of sadness, outrage and shame” but he hopes that by returning they can also represent a common path.
Event organizers said they were doing everything they could to ensure survivors could attend the event, inviting them in with buses and offering mental health counselors, as they know the event could be traumatic for some.
Francis acknowledged that the memories could trigger old wounds and that even just being there could be traumatic, but he said remembering was important to prevent indifference.
“You have to remember how devastating the assimilation and suffrage policies, which included the boarding school system, were for the people of these countries,” he said.
Later Monday, Francis was scheduled to visit Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, a Catholic congregation in Edmonton that aligns with indigenous peoples and their culture. The church, whose sanctuary was dedicated last week after being restored after a fire, incorporates indigenous language and customs into the liturgy.