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'I ask forgiveness': Pope Francis issues apology for residential school abuses


Pope Francis has issued a public apology for the role that the Catholic Church played in Canada’s residential school system, calling it a “deplorable evil” following his visit to the former site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alta.

Speaking to a crowd of Indigenous community members and residential school survivors on Monday at the community’s powwow grounds, he decried colonial “policies of assimilation and enfranchisement” and urged formal investigations to follow the first step of this apology.

“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry,” he said in his official apology on Monday. “Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples. I am sorry."

Some in the crowd wept, some applauded, while others closed their eyes as they listened to the Pope’s words. A banner was held up containing the names of some of those confirmed to have died in the residential school system.

"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 promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools," the Pope continued.  

The apology was delivered in Spanish, the Pope’s first language, and translated into English by a priest, with translations also provided in several Indigenous languages.

“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” the Pope said.

During his apology, the Pope stated that he had been reflecting on the meetings that he had with Indigenous delegations in Rome four months ago, when Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors met with him to explain the damaging legacy of residential schools.

“I think back on the stories you told: how the policies of assimilation ended up systematically marginalizing the Indigenous peoples; how also through the system of residential schools your languages and cultures were denigrated and suppressed; how children suffered physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse; how they were taken away from their homes at a young age, and how that indelibly affected relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren,” he said.

“I thank you for making me appreciate this, for telling me about the heavy burdens that you still bear, for sharing with me these bitter memories.”

The apology concluded with the Pope returning the child-sized moccasins that were given to him at the Vatican meeting in March by Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier, a retired chief of Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan.

He said the moccasins had served for the past four months as a reminder of his sense of “sorrow, indignation and shame.”

“The memory of those children is indeed painful,” he said, adding that those moccasins serve as a symbol of the path he would like to walk forward with communities on.

Canada’s residential schools operated from the mid-1880s until the late 1900s, with the last school closing in 1996. Around 60 per cent of the schools were operated by the Catholic Church.

The Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis had been one of the largest residential schools in the country. On Monday, five teepees were set up in the area of the former school, with four representing the nations of the land and the fifth symbolizing the entrance to the building.

Prior to his apology, the Pope had been taken to a graveyard in Maskwacis, where organizers say there are likely remains of residential school students among those buried there. Seated in his wheelchair amongst the graves, he brought his hands to his face and prayed.

As part of the day’s events, the Pope was also presented with a headdress to wear by Chief Wilton Littlechild following ceremonial signing and drumming. Littlechild, a former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), had spent 14 years in residential schools as a child.

The Pope’s apology comes more than seven years after the TRC released its calls to action. The 58th call to action from the commission called upon the Pope to issue an apology on Canadian soil for the Catholic Church's role in the residential school system.

Pressure on the Pope to come to Canada and issue an apology had been mounting after the discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops B.C. last year, which was followed by similar discoveries at numerous other former residential school sites across the country.

Only a fraction of the schools have been searched — around 150,000 children are believed to have attended the schools in total, most by force, and the TRC projected that around 4,100 to 6,000 children died.

Of the 139 schools in the system, more than half had been run by the Catholic Church

Pope Francis said his visit would not take him to all communities he received an invitation to but acknowledged the pain felt across all Indigenous communities across Canada.

“Know that I am aware of the sufferings and traumas, the difficulties and challenges, experienced by the Indigenous peoples in every region of this country. The words that I speak throughout this penitential journey are meant for every native community and person. I embrace all of you with affection,” he said.

Pope Francis quoted writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in addressing the emotional toll many community members and survivors were feeling; emphasizing the importance for non-Indigenous people to learn and remember Canada's dark history as to not become indifferent to it.

"Yet it is right to remember, because forgetfulness leads to indifference and, as has been said, 'the opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference… and the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference,'" he said.

Pope Francis also called for formal investigations to be conducted into what occurred in these residential schools, as the apology only symbolizes the first step in the reconciliation process.

"An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered," he said.


With files from the Canadian Press  


If you are a former residential school survivor in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here. Top Stories

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