The Washington Post

Pope delivers historic apology

IN CANADA, AN ACT OF RECONCILIA­TION Condemns abuse of Indigenous at schools

- BY CHICO HARLAN AND AMANDA COLETTA

maskwacis, alberta — Pope Francis on Monday began a longsought act of reconcilia­tion in Canada, decrying the country’s “catastroph­ic” residentia­l school system for Indigenous children and asking forgivenes­s for the “evil committed by so many Christians.”

“I am deeply sorry — sorry for the ways in which, regrettabl­y, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said in his native Spanish.

He addressed his comments to several thousand residentia­l school survivors in a grass field encircled by a small grandstand on the first full day of a trip aimed at penitence for one of Canada’s greatest tragedies: a school system that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their parents and tried to assimilate them into Euro- Christian society — often brutally. Students were forbidden from speaking their native languages or practicing traditiona­l customs; many were physically or sexually abused.

“It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have contin

ued to pay the price of this,” Francis said.

His use of the word “sorry” twice drew cheers and applause. He briefly donned a feathered headdress that was given to him after his remarks, drawing louder cheers.

Francis’s visit is a response to years of Indigenous requests for an acknowledg­ment from the Catholic Church, which ran a majority of the schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though Francis for much of his pontificat­e had demurred, he faced mounting pressure after Indigenous groups last year said ground-penetratin­g radar had located hundreds of unmarked graves near former residentia­l schools.

The trip represents a major break from the norms of papal overseas travel, on which celebratio­n and evangeliza­tion tend to be the central goals. Francis, 85, opted for only a modest welcome ceremony when landing Sunday in Edmonton, where he was greeted with Indigenous music. He chose not to issue any remarks until he arrived Monday morning in Maskwacis, an Indigenous community surrounded by yellow canola fields in the Alberta prairie between Edmonton and Calgary. The speaker who introduced him said, “Welcome to our land.”

Earlier, Francis — in his wheelchair — prayed at cemetery grounds believed to hold the remains of residentia­l school students, and he visited the former site of the Ermineskin residentia­l school, which opened in 1895 and was operated by Roman Catholic missionari­es for much of its existence. It was taken under federal control in 1969; the dormitorie­s were closed in 1970.

Francis hosted an Indigenous delegation at the Vatican in April and apologized then for the “deplorable conduct” of some “members” of the Catholic Church in the residentia­l school system.

Some survivors said at the time that those words did not go far enough. They hoped Francis would address the complicity of the Catholic Church. But Francis’s remarks Monday hit much the same note as the earlier apology, in that he lamented the actions of individual­s in the church — not the church itself.

“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,” Francis said.

When the Presbyteri­an Church of Canada apologized in 1994, the actions of wrongdoing were ascribed to the church itself. “We confess that The Presbyteri­an Church in Canada presumed to know better than Aboriginal peoples what was needed for life,” the church said in a statement at the time.

Helen Charlie, 63, a residentia­l school survivor who flew in for the event from Whitehorse, Yukon, said that though the pope didn’t apologize for the broader church, he did apologize in personal terms that she found moving. “It was like he took the blame for everything,” she said after the event, as she moved toward the stage, hoping to meet him. She said she wanted to touch the pope’s shirt, take him close and ask him to pray for the many people she knew who died young — including from alcoholism that she attributed in part to residentia­l school experience­s.

“I cried while he talked,” Charlie said.

Many in the crowd wore orange shirts with the phrase “Every child matters,” which are also worn to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconcilia­tion and to remember the legacy of residentia­l schools. People carried a 164foot red memorial cloth with the names of the 4,120 Indigenous children who died or went missing at residentia­l schools.

For Indigenous listeners, the event touched off a reflection that quickly moved beyond the apology to concerns about Indigenous relations with the Canadian government and what might happen next — in 50 years, in 500 years. It made many think of their fragile communitie­s, about addiction and suicide and other aspects of trauma, and how many people who had been desperate for an apology never got to hear one.

“About 80 percent of my classmates are in their graves,” Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation said.

“Part of me is rejoiced. Part of me is said,” said Evelyn Korkmaz, a residentia­l school survivor. “But I’m glad I lived long enough to have witnessed this apology.”

Later in the day, Francis returned to Edmonton and visited the only designated Indigenous church in Canada, where compared with the morning he diagnosed the ills of the residentia­l school system more in religious terms. He said that believers had made the mistake of trying to impose “their own cultural models” and that that is not the approach to draw somebody toward God.

“That is not how the Lord operates,” Francis said. “He does not force us. He does not suppress or overwhelm.”

The last residentia­l schools closed in the 1990s, but the colonialis­t ideas that underpinne­d the school system continue to provoke a reckoning in the Roman Catholic Church today. Francis, the first South American pope, comes from a continent where Christiani­ty was introduced by conquerors. During a 2015 trip to Bolivia, he apologized for the church’s “grave sins” during colonialis­m and for crimes committed against native people.

Francis has offered apologies at several points in his pontificat­e — most notably, before Monday, for sexual abuse in the church. His most personal apology was in a 2018 letter to Chilean bishops, in which he acknowledg­ed what he said were his own “serious errors” in handling a sex abuse scandal. In Ireland that year, after a national reckoning over widespread clerical abuse, he asked forgivenes­s for “abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse on the part of representa­tives of the church.”

The Ermineskin residentia­l school, when it operated, was one of the largest in Canada. In testimony before the country’s Truth and Reconcilia­tion Commission on residentia­l schools, former Ermineskin students described days marked by loneliness, fear and abuse. One said she was told that the Sun Dance, an Indigenous ceremony, amounted to devil worship.

Marilyn Buffalo told the commission that teachers called the children “savage.”

Overcrowdi­ng and outbreaks of diseases, including measles, hepatitis and diphtheria, were common. A 1940s survey found that one-third of the students had tuberculos­is and suggested students be sent to the hospital. Instead, some were sent home and others were kept under observatio­n.

In 1966, a supervisor at Ermineskin wrote to the chief superinten­dent of education at the federal Department of Indian Affairs to report that priests were whipping girls with straps on their “bare bottoms.” She included the testimony of two students. She was dismissed.

At least 15 children died or went missing at the Ermineskin school during its operation, according to the National Center for Truth and Reconcilia­tion.

Victor Buffalo was 7 years old and spoke no English when he was sent to Ermineskin. Buffalo, who is a cousin of Marilyn Buffalo, told The Washington Post that school administra­tors withheld food as punishment and whipped him frequently for speaking his native Cree.

After one such beating in front of his friends, Buffalo, who later became a chief of the Samson Cree Nation in Alberta, retreated to a nearby bathroom to cry — not because he was in physical pain, he said, but because his mother and father weren’t there to care for him.

Buffalo said his relationsh­ip with his parents, who also attended residentia­l schools, was strained for many decades after he left the school in 1961. Severing ties to Indigenous culture, including familial ones, was an aim of the system.

“The greatest thing that we lost was love,” Buffalo said ahead of Francis’s visit. “The love of a family, the love of a mother, the love of a father.”

“I am deeply sorry — sorry for the ways in which, regrettabl­y, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.” Pope Francis

 ?? PATRICK T. FALLON/AGENCE france-presse/getty images ?? Pope Francis wears a headdress presented to him by Indigenous leaders during a meeting in Maskwacis, Alberta, where he apologized to thousands of survivors of child abuse committed over decades at residentia­l schools in Canada. The school system forcibly removed Indigenous children from their parents and tried to assimilate them into Euro-christian society — often brutally.
PATRICK T. FALLON/AGENCE france-presse/getty images Pope Francis wears a headdress presented to him by Indigenous leaders during a meeting in Maskwacis, Alberta, where he apologized to thousands of survivors of child abuse committed over decades at residentia­l schools in Canada. The school system forcibly removed Indigenous children from their parents and tried to assimilate them into Euro-christian society — often brutally.
 ?? Vincenzo Pinto/agence france-presse/getty Images ?? TOP: Pope Francis leaves after visiting the Ermineskin cemetery in Maskwacis, Alberta. BELOW: People react as the pope meets with First Nations, Metis and Inuit Indigenous communitie­s.
Vincenzo Pinto/agence france-presse/getty Images TOP: Pope Francis leaves after visiting the Ermineskin cemetery in Maskwacis, Alberta. BELOW: People react as the pope meets with First Nations, Metis and Inuit Indigenous communitie­s.
 ?? AMBER Bracken/reuters ??
AMBER Bracken/reuters

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