After a visit with delegations from Indigenous leaders of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis this week, Pope Francis has issued an apology for the actions of some members of the Catholic Church in Canada’s residential schools.
On Friday, the pope said he felt “sorrow and shame” for how Indigenous people were treated in Canada. The papal apology comes months after the remains of hundreds of children were found on the grounds of former residential schools in Canada.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission have said the forced assimilation and treatment of Indigenous people in the schools amounted to cultural genocide. The commission has documented thousands of Indigenous children who died at these schools.
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. Indigenous leaders have cited the legacy of that abuse and isolation from family as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction now on Canadian reservations.
“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon,” the Pope said.
In a news conference, Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said Friday that the apology was “long overdue,” though they noted it was delivered empathetic and caring.
“Today, we have a piece of the puzzle. There is much more to do, so an apology is part of a larger picture,” Obed said.
Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, said, “We feel heard and listened to. This opens a door for us to continue on our healing journeys, and it opens a door for us to continue to fight for action.”
Earlier this week, Pope Francis had meetings with the Indigenous leaders and survivors of the residential schools in Canada, who traveled to the Vatican to demand an apology. The sessions were supposed to occur last December but were delayed due to the pandemic.
Last June, after hundreds of remains were discovered, Pope Francis expressed “sorrow” but did not apologize. Friday, he said he hoped they could work together toward truth and reconciliation.
“Listening to your voices, I was able to enter into and be deeply grieved by the stories of the suffering, hardship, discrimination, and various forms of abuse that some of you experienced, particularly in the residential schools,” Pope Francis said.
“It is chilling to think of determined efforts to instil a sense of inferiority, rob people of their cultural identity, sever their roots, and consider all the personal and social effects that this continues to entail: unresolved traumas that have become intergenerational traumas.”
Pope Francis also said he would visit Canada.
In addition, as part of a settlement of a lawsuit involving the Canadian government, churches, and the approximately 90,000 surviving students, Canada paid reparations that amounted to billions of dollars being transferred to Indigenous communities. The Catholic Church, for its part, has spent over $50 million and now intends to add $30 million more over the next five years.
Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged Francis’ apology and said he looked forward to having him deliver it in person in Canada.
“This apology would not have happened without the long advocacy of survivors who journeyed to tell their truths directly to the institution responsible and who recounted and relived their painful memories,” he said.
“Today’s apology is a step forward in acknowledging the truth of our past to right historical wrongs, but there is still work to be done.”