Papal Visit: Apology at last in Canada

Pope Francis tells thousands gathered at Maskwacis he is sorry, but the question remains: ‘What’s next?’

By: - July 26, 2022 1:33 pm

Pope Francis prepares to deliver his apology to Indigenous people on July 25, 2022, in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada with chiefs of the four nations on whose land he stood. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau / ICT)

WARNING: This story has disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

MASKWACIS, Alberta, Canada – Saying it is time to find a pathway forward for healing, Pope Francis issued a long-awaited apology to the Indigenous people of Canada for the Catholic Church’s role in the brutal residential school system that separated children from their families, culture and language.

“I am deeply sorry,” the Pope said, from the grounds where the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School operated from 1916 to 1975 as one of the largest government-funded schools run by the Catholic Church.

In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children.

– Pope Francis

When the apology finally came nearly 150 years after the first Indigenous children were snatched from their families to face abuse and neglect, it drew applause and a few whoops from the hundreds of people gathered to hear the Pope at Maskwacis in the heart of the Cree First Nations and other Indigenous communities.

But it also brought tears – tears for the children who never came home, whose remains were dumped in unmarked graves. For the children who returned to their families with trauma that would endure through generations. For elders who still can’t speak of the atrocities.

This story was originally published by ICT. It is republished here with permission.

And it brought renewed calls for reconciliation and reparation to the generations who were taught that their language, culture and traditions were inferior to the Christian foundations of the colonizing government.

The apology came less than 24 hours after Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Indigenous lands for what he called a “penitential pilgrimage” through the territories of Canada’s three Indigenous peoples – First Nations, Métis and Inuit. It was his first visit to Canada.

“This is a special moment for our people,” Phil Fontaine, a former chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a boarding school survivor, told CBC News before the Pope’s speech.

“It’s the beginning. It’s the start.”

The Pope also called for communities to work together to provide healing, support and recognition for the Indigenous peoples who suffered in the residential school system.

“Begging pardon … is only the first step, the starting point,” the Pope said. “An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious investigation and to help the survivors of residential schools.”

The Pope’s message did not include an apology to the United States, where a system that created about 400 Indian boarding schools served as a model for the residential system in Canada.

Interior Department report details the brutality of federal Indian boarding schools

An ugly history

More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families and forced to attend government-funded schools in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture.

Catholic missionaries operated more than 60 percent of the 139 residential schools in Canada that received government funds, and more than one-fourth of the approximately 400 schools in the United States.

Thousands more attended church-funded schools.

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Miles Morrisseau, ICT
Miles Morrisseau, ICT

Miles Morrisseau, a citizen of the Métis Nation, is a special correspondent for ICT based in the historic Métis Community of Grand Rapids, Manitoba, Canada. He reported as a national Native Affairs broadcaster for CBC Radio and is former editor-in-chief of Indian Country Today.