Pope Francis Goes to Canada to Apologize for Indigenous Residential Schools


TORONTO — Pope Francis will visit Canada on Sunday, where he will come face to face with one of the country’s major tragedies: the often violent residential schools, run with the help of the Catholic Church, designed to deaf native culture and family ties.

This long-awaited journey is unlike any other in papal history: repentance is the primary goal.

Francis has faced calls to apologize in Canada for the church’s role in the residential school system during his papacy, but pressure has mounted in the past year as several indigenous groups said ground-penetrating radar had found evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves. on or near the sites of former schools.

The findings led to a national reckoning over Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples and diminished the Church’s reputation here. After resisting calls for an apology, Francis told an indigenous delegation at the Vatican in April that he was “sorry” for the behavior of “some Catholics” and planned to visit Canada.

Randy Ermineskin, head of the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, said he hopes the pope’s comments will bring healing.

“We want the truth about what happened in these schools to be shared with the public,” he said. “Everyone should know what happened to us and that it will never happen again.”

What you need to know about Canada’s residential schools and the unmarked graves nearby

Beginning in the 19th century, at least 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families, sometimes forcibly, to attend residential schools, which were funded by the government and run by churches. The last school closed in the 1990s.

Everything indicates that they were schools in name only. Children were severely punished for speaking their native language and practicing their traditions, and many of them suffered from neglect and sexual, psychological and physical abuse.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in a 2015 report that the residential school system has committed a “cultural genocide,” leaving deep wounds and intergenerational trauma on Indigenous families found across Canada.

The committee devoted much of its report to unmarked cemeteries and missing children in schools. It identified 3,200 children who died, a figure that has grown since publication. The percentage was higher than for non-indigenous children.

Children died of disease, suicide, accidents or while trying to escape. Sometimes neither the government nor the school recorded the names of students who died or reported deaths to their families. Many children were not returned home and were buried in unmarked graves.

An unmarked grave drags a not-so-distant horror back into the limelight. Is this a real reckoning?

Most schools were run by Catholic entities. Among the commission’s 94 calls to action was a formal papal apology on Canadian soil.

Francis is the first pope to travel to Canada since Pope John Paul II’s 2002 World Youth Day visit, which included an open-air mass in a Toronto park that attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. This journey will have a different tenor.

Papal apologies are hardly new, and they have addressed specific and extensive mistakes of the past, including the sins of colonialism and ecclesiastical discrimination against women. But when such apologies have come during foreign visits — such as John Paul II in Cameroon in 1985, apologizing for white Christians’ involvement in the slave trade — they have been tucked into otherwise standard papal programs of celebrations and meet-and-greets.

The trip to Canada is much less pompous: ‘A penitential pilgrimage’, Francis recently called it.

Over six days, Francis has at least five scheduled meetings with indigenous groups, and is expected to issue a series of penitent messages, not just one, including Monday after visiting the former site of the Ermineskin Residential School in Maskwacis, Alberta.

Although he arrives on a Sunday, Francis will not celebrate mass publicly until Tuesday. Reverend Cristino Bouvette, the national liturgical director of the visit, said this was intentional.

“I think he indicates that he came with a mission in mind and that is to meet indigenous people on their land,” said Bouvette, a priest whose grandmother was a residential school survivor, “and to extract that symbolic olive branch.” expanding in the hope of reconciliation. … What he comes here to do is quite specific.”

Organizers have said the route was planned with the 85-year-old pope’s declining mobility in mind. Francis canceled a planned trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan this month so as not to endanger the health of his knee.

Investigation finds cemeteries at 53 federal Indian boarding schools

His visit to Canada begins in the prairie province of Alberta, home to the largest number of residential schools, and stops in Quebec City and the Arctic region of Nunavut.

Organizers have said Indigenous participation is a top priority, and Ottawa said last week it would provide $23 million to Indigenous groups for the visit, including travel costs.

But in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, RoseAnne Archibald, national head of the Assembly of First Nations, said Indigenous people have had little input in the visit and are “being victimized again.”

“This visit and apology has evolved to be more of a benefit to Canadian Catholic parishioners and the global Christian community,” she wrote, “and less about actual action for reparations and reconciliation with the First Nations community harmed by institutions for assimilation and genocide.”

For native leaders, Francis’ journey has been hard fought.

The federal government and the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches of Canada apologized for their role in residential schools in the 1990s and honored their financial obligations to survivors under a 2006 settlement.

While some Catholic entities and local church leaders apologized here, Francis had long resisted calls, including a personal call from Trudeau in 2017, to follow suit.

But earlier this year, the Pope welcomed an indigenous delegation to the Vatican and concluded their meeting with an apology for the “deplorable behavior” in residential schools by “members” of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis will not apologize for abusive church-run schools in Canada, and lawmakers are unhappy

Victor Buffalo, the former head of the Samson Cree Nation, said he wept when he saw the apology on television.

“It’s very, very touching that he says that,” said Buffalo, 80, who attended Ermineskin Residential School. “Our people need to hear that – that the wrongs that have been done to us must be righted, must be atoned for.”

While the apology was welcomed as a much-needed first step, some indigenous people want Francis to extend it, targeting not only the actions of specific Catholics, but also acknowledging the complicity of the institution as a whole.

During his pontificate, while coping with the ongoing crisis of clergy sexual abuse, Francis gradually pushed the church to more openly acknowledge the failures of church leaders that contributed to the systemic nature of the crimes and cover-ups.

David Gibson, the director of Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture, said the way Francis handled the abuse crisis likely influenced his approach to the moment and shaped his approach to apologies: that they should be addressed to the specific victims, after meeting and listening to them.

“[An apology] can no longer be just a decree read from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica,’ he said. “It is now a personal action between the Pope and a person or people.”

Dorene Bernard was 4 years old when she was sent to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, where children were called by numbers, not their names. Bernard was often tied up with a leather belt and not allowed to talk to her brother, who was also a student. The school was run by a Catholic entity.

She said Francis’s April apology sounded “hollow”.

“It was he who apologized on behalf of some members,” said Bernard, 66. “This is systematic abuse.”

Survivors also want church groups to release data that could help identify children who died in the schools, and for Francis to settle compensation. Bernard and others are calling on him to part with 15th-century papal bulls that anchored the teachings of discovery and were used to justify colonization.

“That’s my prayer,” said Bernard. “It’s not enough to just say ‘I’m sorry’. You need action.”

Harlan reported from Rome.

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