Baltimore Sun

Pope apologizes for ‘catastroph­ic’ policy

‘Deeply sorry’ for role of Canada’s churches in forced assimilati­on

- By Nicole Winfield and Peter Smith

MASKWACIS, Alberta — Pope Francis issued a historic apology Monday for the Catholic Church’s cooperatio­n with Canada’s “catastroph­ic” policy of Indigenous residentia­l schools, saying the forced assimilati­on of Native peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed families and marginaliz­ed generation­s in ways still being felt today.

“I am deeply sorry,” Francis said, to applause from school survivors and Indigenous community members gathered at a former residentia­l school south of Edmonton, Alberta, the first event of Francis’ weeklong “penitentia­l pilgrimage” to Canada.

The morning after he arrived in the country, Francis traveled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray at a cemetery. Four chiefs then escorted the pontiff in his wheelchair to powwow ceremonial grounds where he delivered the long-sought apology and was given a feathered headdress.

“I humbly beg forgivenes­s for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residentia­l School, now largely torn down.

His words went beyond his earlier apology for the “deplorable” acts of missionari­es and instead took responsibi­lity for the church’s institutio­nal cooperatio­n with the “catastroph­ic” assimilati­on policy, which Canada’s Truth and Reconcilia­tion

Commission said amounted to a “cultural genocide.”

More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend statefunde­d Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort 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. That legacy of that abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction now on Canadian reservatio­ns.

The discoverie­s of hundreds of potential burial sites at former schools in the past year drew internatio­nal attention to the legacy of the schools in Canada and their counterpar­ts in the United States. The discoverie­s prompted Francis to comply with the truth commission’s call for him to apologize on

Canadian soil for the Catholic Church’s role; Catholic religious orders operated 66 of the 139 schools in Canada.

Many in the crowd Monday wore traditiona­l dress, including colorful ribbon skirts and vests with Native motifs. Others donned orange shirts, which have become a symbol of residentia­l school survivors.

Despite the solemnity of the event, the atmosphere seemed at times joyful: Chiefs processed into the site venue to a hypnotic drumbeat, elders danced and the crowd cheered and chanted war songs, victory songs and finally a healing song.

One of the hosts of the event, Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, said some had chosen to stay away — and that was understand­able. But he said it was neverthele­ss a historic, important day for his people.

“My late family members are not here with us anymore, my parents went to residentia­l school, I went to residentia­l school,” he told reporters as he waited for Francis to arrive. “I know they’re with me, they’re listening, they’re watching.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who last year voiced an apology for the “incredibly harmful government policy” in organizing the residentia­l school system, also attended.

As part of a lawsuit settlement involving the government, churches and approximat­ely 90,000 survivors, Canada paid reparation­s that amounted to billions of dollars being transferre­d to Indigenous communitie­s. Canada’s Catholic Church says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50 million in cash and in-kind contributi­ons.

 ?? GREGORIO BORGIA/AP ?? Pope Francis puts on an Indigenous headdress he received Monday near Edmonton, Alberta.
GREGORIO BORGIA/AP Pope Francis puts on an Indigenous headdress he received Monday near Edmonton, Alberta.

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