Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Tuesday July 26, 2022
Pope Francis apologizes for forced assimilation of Indigenous children at residential schools
The first day of Pope Francis’s “penitential pilgrimage” began with a heartfelt apology delivered at the site of one of Canada’s largest residential schools and ended eight hours later with blessings and songs at an intimate service in the only designated Indigenous church in Canada.
In a morning event in a First Nation community in central Alberta, Pope Francis apologized for members of the Catholic Church who co-operated with Canada’s “devastating” policy of Indigenous residential schools.
He said the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed their families and marginalized generations in ways still being felt today.
“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis told thousands of Indigenous people, including many survivors, who converged on Maskwacis, Alta., about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton.
To applause from those gathered, the Pope repeatedly begged forgiveness for actions of the past, supported by many members of the Church, which created the “disastrous error” and “deplorable evil” of residential schools.
He said the memories of the children who never returned from residential schools have left him with a sense of “sorrow, indignation and shame.”
The policies of assimilation marginalized Indigenous people, robbed them of their language and culture, and indelibly affected relationships between parents and their children and grandparents and their grandchildren, he said.
“Here from this place, associated with painful memories, I would like to begin what I consider a pilgrimage. A penitential pilgrimage,” he said, speaking from the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, one of the largest in Canada.
Francis’s words on Monday went beyond his earlier apology for the “deplorable” acts of missionaries and instead took responsibility for the church’s institutional co-operation with the “catastrophic” assimilation policy, which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has said amounted to a “cultural genocide.”
The Pope spoke in Spanish, his first language, and it was translated into English by a priest. Translations were also available in several Indigenous languages.
He said his apology is only the first step in making amends with Indigenous people in Canada and that a serious investigation must be conducted into the facts of what occurred in the past.
Chief Vernon Saddleback from Samson Cree Nation noted that he was grateful that the many dignitaries attending the event — from Treaty 6 leaders to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Gov. Gen. Mary Simon — were not invited to speak.
“Sometimes we need to sit back and we need to listen,” Saddleback said. “For me today, with the Pope apologizing, today was a day for everyone in the world to sit back and listen.”
All of the chiefs spoke about the “survivors and thrivers” who live in their communities, as well as about the pain that the papal apology will evoke within many.
“I anticipate this apology will weigh heavily and open old wounds for survivors,” said Chief Desmond Bull of the Louis Bull Tribe.
The Pope committed to the Canadian tour on April 1, after meetings over several days with First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups at the Vatican. At the time, Francis apologized for the deplorable conduct of some church members involved in residential schools and promised to visit Canada.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada, where neglect and physical and sexual abuse were rampant. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church.
On Tuesday, the Pope will celebrate a large outdoor mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton and take part in a pilgrimage at nearby Lac Ste. Anne, before travelling to Quebec City and Iqaluit.
Five teepees were set up at the location for the Pope’s visit — four representing the nations of the land and the fifth a symbol of the entrance to the former school. (CBC)