POPE FRANCIS has apologised and asked for forgiveness for the abuses committed by Christians against the Indigenous Peoples in Canada, including within the residential-school system there.
On the first day of what he described as three-day “penitential pilgrimage” to the country, on Monday, the Pope told representatives of Indigenous Peoples of the First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit, of his “sorrow, indignation, and shame” at the legacy of European colonialism.
Last year, a mass grave of 215 children was discovered at the site of a former Roman Catholic residential school (News, 4 June 2021). Since the late 1980s, survivors have spoken of how the schools run by both the RC and Anglican Churches denigrated their culture, to the accompaniment of physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, and spiritual abuse.
“The memory of those children is indeed painful,” Pope Francis said. “It urges us to work to ensure that every child is treated with love, honour, and respect.”
More than 2000 people, including survivors of abuse gathered in Maskwacis Park, near Edmonton, to listen to the first public address of the Pope’s visit. “Today I am here, in this land that, along with its ancient memories, preserves the scars of still open wounds. 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. 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 continued: “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 Cree Chief and a residential-school survivor, and lawyer, Wilton Littlechild, said that the Pope’s words were a “very important step on the journey to reconciliation that started many years ago”.
On Tuesday, the Pope celebrated mass at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. In his homily, he prayed that “the history of violence and marginalization suffered by our indigenous brothers and sisters is never repeated”. He later celebrated a Liturgy of the Word at Lac Ste. Anne, one of the most sacred sites for Indigenous peoples of North America, where he emphasised the healing part played by mothers and grandmothers within communities.
This is Pope Francis’s 37th apostolic journey to Canada.