Pope Francis apologized on Monday to Canada’s native people on their land for the Church’s role in schools where Indigenous children were abused, branding forced cultural assimilation a “deplorable evil” and “disastrous error.”
Speaking near the site of two former schools in Maskwacis, in Alberta, Francis went even further, apologizing for Christian support of the overall “colonizing mentality” of the times and calling for a “serious investigation” of the schools to assist survivors and descendants in healing.
“With shame and unambiguously, I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said in the town, whose name means “hills of the bear” in the Cree language.
The 85-year-old pope, who is still using a wheelchair and cane because of a fractured knee, is making the week-long apology tour of Canada to fulfill a promise he made to Indigenous delegations that visited him earlier this year at the Vatican, where he made the initial apology.
Indigenous leaders wearing eagle-feather war headdresses greeted the pope as a fellow chief and welcomed him with chanting, drum beating, dancing, and war songs.
“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry,” he said.
He was addressing the Indigenous groups in the Bear Park Pow-Wow Grounds, part of the the ancestral territory of the Cree, Dene, Blackfoot, Saulteaux, and Nakota Sioux people.
“Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples. I am sorry,” he said during the meeting with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people.
“In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children.”
Between 1881 and 1996 more than 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and brought to residential schools. Many children were starved, beaten, and sexually abused in a system that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide.”
“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,” the pope said.
The discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in British Columbia last year brought the issue to the fore again. Since then, the suspected remains of hundreds more children have been detected at other former residential schools around the country.
A red banner with names of missing children was carried before the pope.
Wallace Yellowface, 78, a boarding school survivor from Pikanni Nation Reserve in Southern Alberta, said the pope’s message was too little, too late for him.
“It’s late for an apology, and I don’t think it will do me much good,” he said, adding that he was still trying to find out what happened to his sister, who also attended a residential school.
Before making his address, Francis, sitting in a wheelchair, prayed in a field of crosses in the cemetery of the Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Indigenous Catholic parish and passed by a stone memorial to the two residential schools once in the area.
Survivors want more
Survivors and leaders of Indigenous communities say they want more than an apology. They also want financial compensation, the return of artifacts sent to the Vatican by missionaries, support in bringing an alleged abuser now living in France to justice, and the release of records held by the religious orders that ran the schools.
Some also have called for the Catholic Church to renounce 15th-century papal bulls, or edicts, that justified colonial powers taking away Indigenous land.
Francis called for “a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered.”
In January, the Canadian government agreed to pay 40 billion Canadian dollars ($31 billion) to compensate First Nations children who were taken from their families.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops promised to raise 30 million Canadian dollars ($23 million) for healing, culture and language revitalization and other initiatives. The fund has raised 4.6 million Canadian dollars ($3.6 million) so far.
This story was updated with additional information on July 25 at 4:15 p.m.