Pope apologizes for 'evil' done against Canada's Indigenous people

During a landmark visit to Canada, the head of the Catholic Church apologised to Indigenous survivors for "cultural destruction" in Church-run residential schools

The Pope on the podium during his Canada visit, alongside Prime Minister Trudeau (photo: DW)
The Pope on the podium during his Canada visit, alongside Prime Minister Trudeau (photo: DW)


Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday, for a historic visit where he personally apologised for the horrors of Catholic Church-run Indigenous residential schools.

He was met by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Mary May Simon, the Inuk leader who is Canada's first Indigenous governor general.

On Monday, the pope's first stop was in the town of Maskwacis, home to one of the country's largest residential schools.

There he spoke to an estimated 15,000 people, including former students from across Canada.

Addressing the victims in Maskwacis on Monday afternoon, Pope Francis expressed his "sorrow" and implored victims to practise forgiveness, healing and reconciliation with the Catholic Church, for the role it played in Canada's Indigenous school programme.

The pontiff addressed the "indignation" and "shame" he feels over the memory of the notorious mistreatment of Canada's indigenous children.

"I am sorry. 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," the pope said.

"The place where we are gathered renews within me the deep sense of pain and remorse that I have felt in these past months," the 85-year-old pontiff said.

Why is the pope apologising?

The pontiff has called his week long visit a "penitential pilgrimage" of "healing and reconciliation" to seek forgiveness on Canadian soil for the "evil'' done to native peoples by Catholic missionaries.

"This is a trip of penance. Let's say that is its spirit," he told reporters at the beginning of the flight from Rome to Canada.

In the decades spanning from late 1800s to the 1990s, nearly 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were sent by Canada's government to 139 residential schools run by the church, as part of a failed policy of forced assimilation.

The children were severed from their families, language and culture for months or even years.

Many faced physical and sexual abuse at the hands of headmasters and teachers, while thousands are believed to have died because of neglect, malnutrition and disease.

Since last year, the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children in unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of former schools, with the national truth and reconciliation commission decrying the "cultural genocide".

In a shift from most papal tours, diplomatic protocols take a back seat this time to personal encounters with First Nations, Metis and Inuit survivors.

Francis will end his trip with a visit to Iqaluit, Nunavut—the farthest north the 85-year-old has ever traveled—to make his apology to the Inuit community before heading back to Rome.

Trauma experts on site

Indigenous Canadians have been both wary and hopeful ahead of the Pope's visit.

"It is an understatement to say there are mixed emotions,'' Chief Desmond Bull of the Louis Bull tribe was quoted as saying by news agency AP.

Given the possibility of triggering memories, trauma experts will be deployed at all the events during Francis' visit to provide mental health assistance for school survivors.

"For survivors from coast to coast, this is an opportunity—the first and maybe the last—to perhaps find some closure for themselves and their families,'' said Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation.

"This will be a difficult process but a necessary one,'' he told AP.

Others see the visit by the head of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics as something that is too little, too late.

"I wouldn't go out of my way to see him," Linda McGilvery with the Saddle Lake Cree Nation near Saint Paul told the AFP news agency.

"For me it's kind of too late," she said, "because a lot of the people suffered, and the priests and the nuns have now passed on."

Chief Greg Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation in northern Alberta, said the pope's visit was stirring up "mixed emotions across this country".

A Catholic school survivor, Desjarlais expressed optimism at the pope's arrival but added: "Our people have been traumatised. Some of them didn't make it home. Now I hope the world will see why our people are so hurt."

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