Pope Francis apologizes for Catholic Church’s role in Canadian residential school system

Pope Francis has apologized to a group of Indigenous delegates for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system and asked for forgiveness.

After private meetings between Pope Francis and First Nations, Inuit and Metis delegates this week, all parties met the Pope at the Vatican on Friday.

Speaking in Italian, the pontiff asked for God’s forgiveness for the “deplorable conduct” of members of the Catholic Church, recognizing the wrongs done to Indigenous in residential schools.

“I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Francis said during the final meeting with delegates.

“And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops in asking your pardon.”

The Pope added that he was “indignant” and “ashamed” of the abuses suffered in Canada’s church-run residential schools, and said Catholic educators in these facilities disrespected Indigenous identity, culture and spiritual values.

“It is chilling to think of determined efforts to instill a sense of inferiority, to rob people of their cultural identity, to sever their roots, and to consider all the personal and social effects that this continues to entail: unresolved traumas that have become inter-generational traumas,” the Pope said in Italian.

In addition to the apology, Pope Francis vowed to travel to Canada. An official date has not been set for the trip, but the Pope said he hoped to visit Canada “in the days” around the Feast of Saint Anne, which falls on July 26 and is dedicated to Christ’s grandmother.

A papal apology for the church’s role in facilitating Canada’s residential schools was one of the 94 recommendations outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which from 2008 to 2015 examined the record of the country’s residential schools. Many residential school survivors have said an apology would be more meaningful if Pope Francis travelled to Canada for it.

Approximately 190 people, including delegates, survivors and supporters, gathered Friday to share spiritual practices, such as prayers and traditional songs, and hear the Pope’s words during the final address. Delegates also presented the Pope with gifts, including snow shoes and a bound book of Metis stories.

During Thursday’s meeting, the First Nation delegation also gave the Pope gifts, including Moccasins, an eagle feather and a cradle board, intended as a sign of peace and an example of First Nations culture persisting despite assimilation attempts.

The delegation said they tasked the Pope with taking care of the cradle board overnight, with the hope he will return it when he meets with all three Indigenous groups on Friday, in a sign of his commitment to reconciliation. It is unclear if the board has been returned or if the Pope will return it when he comes to Canada.

In meetings earlier this week, the groups of Indigenous delegates shared stories of loss and abuse, and told the Pope they wanted him to understand how they’ve been shaped by the legacy of the Catholic Church and Canada’s residential school system, as well as the impact of that system on subsequent generations.

The delegates have also asked for a commitment from the Catholic Church to repair the damage its members caused with residential schools, such as rescinding the doctrine of discovery, returning Indigenous lands and providing compensation for survivors.

Beginning in the late 1800s, approximately 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools, facilities that aimed to replace their languages and culture with English and Christian beliefs. The schools were set up by the Canadian government and most were run by the Catholic Church.

Numerous cases of abuse and at least 4,100 deaths have been documented at the former residential schools, where thousands of confirmed and unmarked graves have been found. Canada’s last residential school closed in 1996.

Since the late 1980s, several apologies have been made by different church groups, including former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2008 and the RCMP in 2004 and 2014 — each acknowledging their role in the operation of residential schools.

In 2017, during a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the head of the Catholic Church to apologize for its involvement in Canada’s residential school system. But the following year, the church issued a letter stating the Pope would not deliver an apology.

Speaking to reporters in Saint Peter’s Square following Friday’s address from the Pope, Assembly of First Nations delegation lead Chief Gerald Antoine said the apology was “long overdue” and a “historical first step” towards reconciliation, but “only a first step.”

“Today is a day that we’ve been waiting for, and certainly one that will be uplifted in our history,” Antoine said.

“The next step is for the Holy Father to apologize to our family at their home… they also seek the words of apology at home.”

Antoine said Friday’s apology was an important moment for Indigenous delegates to feel “seen” by the Catholic Church as humans – something they were not afforded during their time at residential schools.

“Our message to the world is that we are all in this together. We’re human beings. Let’s work together to humanize the way we need to with Mother Earth,” Antoine said.

With files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press, as well as CTVNews.ca writers Daniel Otis and Jennifer Ferreira

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.

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