Pope Francis travels to Canada to apologize to indigenous peoples for Church abuses

Pope Francis travels to Canada to express his remorse for the Church’s abuses of indigenous peoples

Pope Francis is scheduled to begin a visit to Canada this Sunday, where will come face to face with one of the country’s greatest tragedies: residential schoolsoften abusive, administered with the help of the Catholic Church, designed to extinguish indigenous culture and family ties.

This long-awaited trip is unlike any other in papal history: Expressing remorse is their primary goal.

Francis has faced calls throughout his papacy to apologize in Canada for the church’s role in the residential school system, but pressure grew last year when several indigenous groups said ground-penetrating radar had uncovered evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves at or near the sites. of the old schools.

The findings sparked a national reckoning over Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples and diminished the church’s reputation in the country. After resisting calls for apologies, Francis told an indigenous delegation at the Vatican in April that he “regretted” the behavior of “several Catholics” and that he intended to visit Canada.

Randy Ermineskin, head of the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, said he hopes the pope’s comments bring healing.

“We want the truth about what happened in these schools to be shared with the public,” he said. “Everyone needs to know what happened to us and that it will never happen again.”

This undated photo provided by Canada's National Center for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) shows indigenous children and religious personnel posing outside the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada.
Undated photo provided by Canada’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) showing indigenous children and religious personnel posing outside the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada (EFEI0342/)

Starting in the 19th century, at least 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families, sometimes by force, to attend government-funded residential schools run by churches. The last school closed in the 1990s.

By all accounts, they were schools in name only. The children were severely punished for speaking their native languages ​​and practicing their traditions.and many of them suffered neglect and sexual, psychological and physical abuse.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in a 2015 report that the residential school system perpetrated a “cultural genocide”leaving deep wounds and intergenerational trauma within indigenous families that stretches across Canada.

The commission devoted much of its report to unmarked burial sites and missing children from schools. It identified 3,200 children who died, a number that has grown since publication. The rate was higher than for non-indigenous children.

The Cowessess indigenous group, in the province of Saskatchewan, in western Canada, discovered graves on the grounds of the Marieval residential school, which was in operation between 1899 and 1997
The Cowessess indigenous group, in the province of Saskatchewan, in western Canada, discovered graves on the grounds of the Marieval residential school, which was in operation between 1899 and 1997 (ESTHER CHAVARREZ /)

Children died from illness, suicide, in accidents, or while trying to escape. Sometimes neither the government nor the school recorded the names of the students who died or reported the deaths to their families. Many children were not returned to their homes and were buried in unmarked graves.

Most schools were run by Catholic entities. Among the commission’s 94 calls to action was a formal papal apology on Canadian soil.

Francis is the first pope to travel to Canada since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2002 for World Youth Day, which included an outdoor Mass in a Toronto park that drew several hundred thousand pilgrims. This trip will have a different tenor.

Papal apologies are not novel and have addressed specific and extensive past wrongs, including the sins of colonialism and the church’s discrimination against women. But when such apologies have come during visits abroad, such as John Paul II, in Cameroon in 1985, apologizing for the involvement of white Christians in the slave trade, they have slipped into standard papal programs of celebration and gathering.

The trip to Canada has much less pomp: “A penitential pilgrimage,” Francis recently called it.

For six days, Francis has at least five meetings scheduled with indigenous groups, and is expected to issue a series of remorseful messages.not just one, including Monday after visiting the former Ermineskin Residential School site in Maskwacis, Alberta.

Although it comes on a Sunday, Francis will not celebrate Mass publicly until Tuesday. The Rev. Cristino Bouvette, national liturgical director of the visit, said it was deliberate.

“I think he is indicating that he has come with a mission in mind and that is to find the indigenous people on their land,” said Bouvette, a priest whose grandmother survived residential school, “and extend that symbolic olive branch in the hope of reconciliation.” … What he comes here to do is pretty specific.”

The pope confirmed his visit to Canada despite his health conditions
The pope confirmed his visit to Canada despite his health conditions (ALBERTO PIZZOLI /)

Organizers have said the itinerary was planned with the 85-year-old pontiff’s decreased mobility in mind. Francis canceled a planned trip this month to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan so as not to jeopardize the health of his knee.

Your visit to Canada begins in the Prairie province of Alberta, which was home to the largest number of residential schools, and includes stops in Quebec City and the arctic territory of Nunavut.

Organizers have said indigenous participation is a top priority, and Ottawa said last week it would provide $23 million to indigenous groups for the visit, including travel costs.

But in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, RoseAnne Archibald, national head of the Assembly of First Nations, said indigenous peoples have had little involvement in the visit and are being “revictimized.”

“This visit and apology has evolved to be more for the benefit of Canadian Catholic parishioners and the global Christian community,” he wrote, “and less about real measures of reparation and reconciliation with the First Nations community that was harmed by institutions of assimilation. and genocide.”

For indigenous leaders, Francisco’s journey has been elusive.

The federal government and the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches of Canada have apologized for their role in residential schools. in the 1990s and met their financial obligations to survivors under a 2006 settlement.

While some Catholic entities and local church leaders here have apologized, Francis has long resisted calls, including a personal call from Trudeau in 2017, to do the same.

But earlier this year, The Pope welcomed an indigenous delegation to the Vatican, capping their meeting with an apology for “deplorable conduct” in residential schools by “members” of the Catholic Church.

Some people left offerings on the land where the bodies of the indigenous people were found.
Some people left offerings on the land where the bodies of the indigenous people were found (JENNIFER GAUTHIER/)

Victor Buffalo, the former chief of the Samson Cree Nation, said he cried when he saw the apology on television.

“For him to say that is very, very moving,” said Buffalo, 80, who attended Ermineskin Residential School. “Our people need to hear that, that the damages that have been done to us must be rectified, must be reconciled.”

Although the apology was welcomed as a much-needed first step, some indigenous people want Francis to expand on it, focusing not only on the actions of specific Catholics, but also acknowledging the complicity of the institution as a whole.

During his pontificate, while dealing with the current crisis of clerical sexual abuse, Francis gradually pushed the church to more openly acknowledge the failings of church leaders. that contributed to the systemic nature of the crimes and the cover-up.

David Gibson, director of Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture, said Francis’ handling of the abuse crisis likely influenced his handling of this moment and shaped his approach to apologies: They should go to specific victims, after meeting with them. and listening to them.

“[Una disculpa] it can no longer be just a decree, read from the balcony of San Pedro,” he said. “Now it is a personal action between the pope and a person or persons.”

Dorene Bernard was 4 years old when she was sent to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, where children were called by numbers and not by their names. Bernard was often tied with a leather belt and prevented from talking to her brother, who was also a student. The school was run by a Catholic entity.

She said Francis’ apology in April sounded “hollow.”

“It was him apologizing on behalf of some members,” said Bernard, 66. “This is systemic abuse.”

Survivors also want church groups to release records that can help identify children who died in schools and for Francis to address compensation. Bernard and others ask him to renounce the 15th-century papal bulls that enshrined the doctrine of discovery and were used to justify colonization.

“That’s my prayer,” Bernard said. “Just saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ is not enough. You need action.”


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They found another 182 unmarked graves at a boarding school for indigenous children in Canada and the remains of minors found rise to 1,100