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Pope apologises for ‘evil’ of Canada’s residential schools

Pope Francis has apologised to Indigenous people in Canada for the “evil” of residential schools, the church-run, forced-assimilation institutions that First Nation, Inuit and Metis children were forced to attend for decades.

After a visit on Monday to the former site of Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, in the western province of Alberta, the pope said he travelled to Canada “to tell you in person of my sorrow [and] to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation”.

“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,” Pope Francis said during a ceremony attended by Indigenous leaders, residential school survivors, elders and others.

“What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said, describing the effects of residential schools as “catastrophic”.

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

The Pope apologises to Indigenous people in Canada for residential school abuses
Pope Francis apologises to Indigenous people for the residential school system in Canada [Todd Korol/Reuters]

The pope’s six-day visit to Canada this week comes after hundreds of unmarked graves were recently uncovered at several former residential school sites, spurring renewed calls for accountability from the government and the Catholic Church, in particular.

Ermineskin, which operated from 1895 to 1975 and was run by the Catholic Church, was one of Canada’s largest residential schools. The government-funded and church-run institutions aimed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream European culture.

More than 150,000 First Nation, Metis and Inuit children were separated from their families and forced into residential schools between the late 1800s and 1990s. They were subjected to widespread physical, psychological and sexual abuse and banned from speaking Indigenous languages, and thousands of children are believed to have died while in attendance.

The system amounted to “cultural genocide”, a federal commission of inquiry, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), said in 2015.

“You have travelled a long way to be with us on our land and to walk with us on the path of reconciliation,” Dr Wilton Littlechild, a survivor of Ermineskin Residential School who has long advocated for a papal apology, told Pope Francis at the start of Monday’s ceremony in Maskwacis. “For this, we honour you and extend to you our most heartfelt welcome.”

For decades, Indigenous survivors called on the pope to apologise for the church’s role in the abuses that took place at residential schools, and an apology was one of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action seven years ago (PDF).

Speaking to an Indigenous delegation that travelled to Rome earlier this year, Pope Francis in April apologised for the “deplorable conduct” of members of the Catholic Church at the institutions. But some community leaders said the pope needed to deliver his apology on Indigenous lands.

Evelyn Korkmaz, a survivor of St Anne’s residential school in Ontario, a notorious institution where Indigenous children were shocked in an electric chair, said she felt mixed emotions on Monday.

“Part of me is rejoiced, part of me is sad, part of me is numb. But I’m glad I lived long enough to have witnessed this apology,” Korkmaz said during a news conference. “But like I said, I want more because 50 years is too long to wait for an apology.”

Pope Francis’s visit and apology have drawn diverse reactions from Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors, with some welcoming this as an important step on the path to healing, and others saying it is too little, too late.

Some also argue that the Catholic Church needs to do much more to atone for its role in residential schools, including releasing all the documents related to the institutions, providing full reparations to survivors and communities, and helping bring the perpetrators of abuse to justice.

“Understanding that survivors will each have their own vision of reconciliation, for many, anything less than an apology that includes an unqualified admission of the crimes committed, a full acceptance of responsibility, and a commitment to end the abuse and make full reparations will be just another empty apology and continuing injustice for First Nations, Inuit and Metis,” Pamela Palmater, professor and chair of Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University, wrote in the Toronto Star newspaper on Sunday.

A map of former residential schools in Canada

“I am a survivor myself. It is not easy for someone like myself to accept an apology when it’s not specific enough,” Byron Joseph, chair of the board of directors of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, also said in a statement this month. “We need action and we need continued support for ongoing healing.”

During Monday’s event, Pope Francis recognised that his apology was only a first step.

He said that to prevent such abuses from taking place again, “a serious investigation into the facts of what took place” must be conducted. The pope did not go into further detail about what such a probe would entail.

Pope Francis was also meeting with Indigenous people at Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton later on Monday afternoon, and he will hold mass at Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday before travelling to a popular pilgrimage site in Lac Ste Anne, Alberta, later that day.

On Wednesday, he will travel to Quebec City, where he will meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor General Mary Simon and where he is scheduled to hold mass at one of the oldest cathedrals in North America on Thursday.

His trip to Canada will end in Iqaluit, in the northern territory of Nunavut, on Friday.

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