Los Angeles Times
Pope apologizes for the ‘catastrophic’ Indigenous school policy in Canada
MASKWACIS, Canada — Pope Francis issued a historic apology Monday for the Roman 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.
“I am deeply sorry,” Francis said to applause from school survivors and Indigenous community members gathered at a former residential school south of Edmonton. He called the school policy a “disastrous error” that was incompatible with the Gospel and said further investigation and healing is needed.
In the first event of his weeklong “penitential pilgrimage,” Francis traveled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray at a cemetery and then deliver the long-sought apology at nearby powwow ceremonial grounds. Four chiefs escorted the pontiff in a wheelchair to the site near the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School and presented him with a feathered headdress after he spoke.
“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said.
His words went beyond his earlier apology for the “deplorable” acts of missionaries and instead took responsibility for the church’s institutional cooperation with Canada’s “catastrophic” assimilation policy, which the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said amounted to a “cultural genocide.”
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend government-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an ef
fort 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.
Ottawa has admitted that physical and sexual abuse were rampant at the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. The 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 last year drew international attention to the legacy of the schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States. The revelations prompted Francis to comply with the truth commission’s call for him to apologize on Canadian soil for the church’s role in the abuses; Catholic religious orders operated 66 of the country’s 139 residential schools.
Some in the crowd Monday wept as Francis spoke, and others applauded or stayed silent listening to his words, which were delivered in Spanish and then translated into English.
“It’s something that is needed, not only for people to hear but for the church to be accountable,” said Sandi Harper, who traveled with her sister and a church group from Saskatoon in honor of their late mother, who went to a residential school.
Harper called the pope’s apology “very genuine.” “He recognizes this road to reconciliation is going to take time, but he is really on board with us,” she said.
Many 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, recalling the story of one woman whose beloved orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was confiscated at a school and replaced with a uniform.
Despite the solemnity of the event, the atmosphere seemed at times joyful: Chiefs processed into the venue to a hypnotic drumbeat, elders danced and the crowd cheered and chanted war songs, victory songs and finally a healing song.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, who was a student at the Ermineskin school and later served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, welcomed Francis at the start of the ceremony and told people the pontiff understood their pain.
“We sincerely hope that our encounter this morning, and the words you share with us, will echo with true healing ... through many generations to come,” he said.
Felisha Crier Hosein came from Florida to attend in place of her mother, who helped create the museum for the nearby Samson Cree Nation and had planned to attend but died in May.
“Sorry is not going to make what happened go away,” she said. “But it means a lot to the elders.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who last year apologized for the “incredibly harmful government policy,” also attended.
As part of a lawsuit settlement involving the government, churches and about 90,000 survivors, Canada paid reparations that amounted to billions of dollars being transferred to Indigenous communities.
Francis told those gathered, “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.”
He said the policy marginalized generations, suppressed Indigenous languages, led to physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse and “indelibly affected relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren.” He called for further investigation, a possible reference to Indigenous demands for greater access to church records and personnel files of the priests and nuns to identify who was responsible for the abuses.