Pope Francis has apologized to Indigenous delegates for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system.
A week of private separate meetings between Pope Francis and First Nations, Inuit and Metis delegates, comprised discussions of the Roman Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system and its enduring legacy. The week culminated with a final and public meeting at the Vatican on Friday.
"For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God's forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart, I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon,” Francis said.
"I also feel shame ... sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, and the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values."
Between the late 1800s and 1996, at least 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and enrolled in residential schools. While the facilities were set up by the Canadian government, more than 60% were operated by the Catholic church.
Residential schools were part of a larger policy to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the dominant Euro-Canadian culture. Many children at the school suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse and were punished for practising cultural traditions or speaking in native languages. At least 4,100 deaths have been documented and thousands of confirmed and unmarked graves have been found. From 2008 to 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated the legacy of the residential school system and in its landmark 2015 report, contended that “[...] the schools institutionalized child neglect and carried out ‘cultural genocide.’” One of the commission’s 94 calls to action included a call for a papal apology.
Different church groups, Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 and the RCMP in 2004 and 2014, have each issued apologies and recognized their role in the system. However, a year following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s request for the head of the Catholic Church to apologize for its involvement in the residential school system, the church issued a letter stating that the Pope would not deliver an apology.
The apology is only one of the demands that Indigenous delegates raised this week. During a private meeting, the leader of the Inuit delegation requested Pope Francis to personally intervene in the case of an Oblate priest facing a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest. The Oblate priest, now residing in France, is accused of sexually assaulting children in Nunavut. First Nations delegates have “[...] also urged the Pope to revoke centuries-old papal decrees used to justify the seizure of Indigenous land in the Americas by colonial powers.”
The Assembly of First Nations delegation lead, Chief Gerald, told reporters following the Friday address:
"It's a historical first step. However, only a first step. The next step is for the Holy Father to apologize to our family at their home. We seek to hear his words. They also seek the words of apology at home."
Pope Francis has said he hoped to visit Canada "in the days" around the church's Feast of St. Anne, which falls on July 26.
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