MASKWACIS, Alberta – Pope Francis offered a sweeping apology directly to indigenous people on their land in Canada on Monday, responding to a critical demand from many of the survivors of church-run residential schools that have become horrific centers of abuse, assimilation forced, cultural devastation and death for more than a century.
“I humbly ask forgiveness for the wrong done by so many Christians against indigenous peoples,” Francis told a large crowd composed largely of indigenous people, some wearing traditional clothing and headdresses, in Alberta, near the site of a former residential school.
The pope delivered his message in a pow wow circle, a covered circle around an open space used for traditional dancing and drumming circles. All around were tents, bonfires and booths labeled “Mental Health and Cultural Support”.
Francis added that his comments are aimed at “every indigenous community and person” and said a sense of “shame” has persisted since he apologized to representatives of indigenous peoples in April at the Vatican.
Before his speech, Francis visited a cemetery where local indigenous people believe the children were buried in unmarked graves.
He said he was “deeply sorry” – a remark that drew applause and shouts of approval – for the way “many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed indigenous peoples”.
“I’m sorry,” he continued. “I apologize, in particular, for the way in which many members of the Church and religious communities collaborated, even with their indifference, in the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time, which culminated in the system of residential schools”.
The pope’s six-day visit to Canada, which will include a visit on Tuesday to Lac Ste. Anne, a sacred pilgrimage site for many indigenous peoples, and meetings with indigenous and church representatives in Quebec City and the Arctic city of Iqaluit, followed years of calls from indigenous and political leaders for a Vatican apology for schools. abusive
The school system was designed to erase indigenous culture and language, forcibly separating children from their families and assimilating them to Western ways.
The Vatican’s apologies came years after formal apologies from the government of Canada, which established the system, and from Protestant churches that operated fewer schools.
Physical, sexual and mental abuse were common in schools, which prohibited indigenous languages and cultural practices, often through violence. The use of Christianity as a weapon to break the Indians has spread for generations.
Christian churches ran the majority of government schools, with Catholic orders responsible for 60 to 70% of the approximately 130 schools, which operated from the 1870s until 1996.
Monday’s apology, as the centerpiece of the trip, was also a starting point for what the Vatican hopes will be a closer, more cooperative relationship in which the Church can become a force for reconciliation rather than just a complaint.
Francis, who suffers from knee pain and sciatica and arrived at the event being pushed around in a wheelchair, said it was “right to remember” what happened where these traumas occurred, even at the risk of opening old wounds.
“It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation,” he said, “which also included the residential school system, were devastating to the people of these lands.” Francis added: “Thank you for making me appreciate this.”
He called the abuses, often carried out with missionary zeal, a “disastrous mistake” that eroded indigenous peoples, their culture and values.
Francis also said that “begging forgiveness is not the end of the matter”, adding that he “fully” agrees with skeptics who want action. And he said he hoped for more investigations and that “concrete ways” could be found to help survivors begin a path to healing and reconciliation.
After delivering his speech, which he gave in Spanish and which was translated into English, Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, who had received the pope, placed him in a headdress, his white feathers over his white robes.
Until this year, the Vatican had rejected repeated apologies from indigenous people. A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by the Canadian government declared schools a form of “cultural genocide” and asked the pope to issue an apology in 2015.
Many indigenous people attribute the Vatican’s move to a shocking discovery announced just over a year ago at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in the arid mountains of British Columbia’s countryside.
An analysis of ground-penetrating radar scans found evidence, consistent with alumni testimony, that hundreds of students were buried in unmarked graves on the school grounds. Subsequent radar searches produced similar grim evidence of remains at other schools in the following months.
After Francis finished his comments, many who gathered to listen said they were satisfied with what he had said.
“He clearly understands the evil of colonization,” said Phil Fontaine, former national head of the Assembly of First Nations, who, 32 years ago, was one of the first indigenous leaders to publicly describe the abuse he suffered in a Catholic home. schools. “I was moved by what I heard.”
But Fontaine, who sat next to the pope on Monday, acknowledged that he and many other indigenous people were disappointed by the pope’s failure to specifically address several issues. Among them are the church’s failure to compensate the surviving students it agreed to pay as part of a historic class-action settlement in 2006.
The Catholic Church paid only 1.2 million of the 25 million Canadian dollars it agreed to raise in cash contributions as compensation to survivors.
Still, Fontaine said the pontiff’s message was a significant step forward.
“He may not have said all the words we wanted to hear,” said Fontaine, who first apologized to Pope Benedict XVI during a Vatican meeting 13 years ago. “But he gave us an idea of the next steps.”
Hours after delivering his apology, Francis continued what he called his “penitential pilgrimage” as he met more school survivors at the Church of the Sacred Heart of First Peoples in Edmonton, Alberta.
“I can imagine the effort it must have taken for those who have suffered so much because of men and women who should have set an example of Christian living, even to think about reconciliation,” he told alumni.
Still, some indigenous people, especially the younger ones, were indifferent to the pope’s visit and apology.
“I’m very critical of the pope’s visit,” said Riley Yesno, 23, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto who is at Eabametoong First Nation in Ontario. “And I say this as someone whose grandparents went to residential schools run by Catholics. I don’t see how any of those words he’s going to say will actually fix the damage that residential schools have done.”
After the pope spoke on Monday morning, Yesno said he was “taking a magnifying glass to the real apology, although I think there was a lot to be desired.”
While the pope’s apology was preceded and followed by traditional indigenous dances, drums and songs, the pontiff was not involved in any traditional indigenous spiritual ceremonies such as blots, the smoke created by burning cedar, sage, fennel and tobacco as way of cleaning.
“Why didn’t he participate in our spiritual exercises?” Rachel Snow, a member of the Iyahe Nakoda Sioux First Nation in Morley, Alberta. “It must be a two-way street.”
But most people in Maskwacis welcomed the long-awaited papal apology.
“It was genuine and it was good,” said Cam Bird, 42, a residential school survivor in Little Red River Cree Nation, Saskatchewan. “He believes in us.”
Some indigenous people said they were still evaluating the pope’s message and how it would resonate after so many generations of devastation and trauma.
“I still haven’t digested this,” said Barb Morin, 64, of Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan, who was wearing a T-shirt that read “Residential School Survivors Never Forgotten” and whose parents suffered in institutions.
“I’m having a really hard time internalizing that right now.”
Jason Horowitz reported from Maskwacis, Alberta, and Ian Austen of Edmonton, Alberta.