Warning: The story below contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
Pope Francis has apologised for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential schools, which Indigenous children were forced to attend for decades and aimed to forcibly assimilate them into mainstream European culture.
Speaking to Indigenous delegates at the Vatican on Friday, Pope Francis said he felt “sorrow and shame” for the role Catholics played in the many abuses that Indigenous children suffered while attending the schools.
“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, Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon,” he said.
A delegation of Metis, Inuit and First Nations leaders, residential school survivors and youth travelled to Rome, Italy this week to hold meetings with the pope and demand an apology for the church’s role in the system.
Canada forced more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children to attend residential schools between the late 1800s and 90s. The children were stripped of their languages and culture, separated from siblings, and subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
Thousands are believed to have died while attending the institutions, most of which were run by the Roman Catholic Church. A federal commission of inquiry into the institutions, known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), concluded in 2015 that Canada’s residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide”.
While other churches had apologised for their role in residential schools, the Catholic Church had yet to offer such an apology – despite longstanding pleas from survivors, their families and communities.
Chief Gerald Antoine, head of the First Nations delegation in Rome this week, told reporters in the Italian capital that Pope Francis’s “long-overdue apology” was “a historical first step”.
“However [it is] only a first step,” Antoine said, explaining that to meet one of the TRC’s Calls to Action (PDF), the pope needs to deliver an apology in Canada. “The next step is for the Holy Father to apologise to our family at their home,” Antoine said.
Pope Francis said on Friday that he would also travel to Canada. Canadian media reported that visit is likely to happen in late July.
“I feel 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, the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” the pope told the delegates, acknowledging that the residential school system resulted in “great harm”.
“The chain that passed on knowledge and ways of life and union with the land was broken by a colonisation that lacked respect for you, tore many of you from your vital milieu and tried to inform you to another mentality,” he said. “In this way, great harm was done to your identity and your culture and your families were separated.”
Indigenous leaders in Canada also have called on the Catholic Church as well as the federal government to release all their records related to the institutions, as communities seek justice for the abuses that occurred.
Those calls for accountability have grown louder after unmarked graves were discovered at several former residential school sites across Canada since last year.
“My heart and thoughts are with the many Inuit, First Nations and Metis,” Canadian parliament member Lori Idlout wrote on Twitter on Friday. “The long awaited apology from the Pope is important. I realize what this can stir and hope you rely on our elders for guidance as we continue to call on justice to be had.”
My heart and thoughts are with the many Inuit, First Nations and Métis. The long awaited apology from the Pope is important. I realize what this can stir and hope you rely on our elders for guidance as we continue to call on justice to be had.
— ᓘᕆ ᐃᓪᓚᐅᖅ Lori Idlout❄️ (@LoriIdlout) April 1, 2022