On Monday, Pope Francis apologized for the abuse suffered by Indigenous children at Canada’s church-run residential schools.
The pontiff decried the country’s “catastrophic” residential school system and asked for forgiveness for the “evil committed by so many Christians.”
His widely anticipated apology came during a visit to the community of Maskwacis, Alberta – the first formal event of his one-week tour after landing in the western province on Sunday.
“I am sorry. I ask for 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,” Francis said, telling nearly two thousand survivors of the residential school system of his “indignation” and “shame” over the painful memory of the treatment of Indigenous children.
Francis also lamented the “colonizing mentality” behind the system and the “catastrophic” effects it had on generations of Indigenous people. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” he said.
He and the survivors had gathered at the Powwow Arbour, a space for First Nations community gatherings and celebrations.
The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the governor general, Mary Simon, the Assembly of First Nations national chief, RoseAnne Archibald, and a number of federal lawmakers were also in attendance.
The event at Maskwacis (Cree for “bear hills”), the site of Ermineskin, Samson, Louis Bull and Montana nations, is the only First Nations community Francis will visit on his tour of Canada. The location also marks the site of the former Ermineskin residential school, one of the largest of its kind in the country, which ran from 1895 until 1975.
Over 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend schools
Over more than a century ago, at least 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend schools such as that of Ermineskin, run by the Catholic church.
Survivors of the school have testified about physical abuse as well as punishment for speaking their mother tongue. At least fifteen children passed away while attending the school, including three of tuberculosis in 1903.
A government survey in the 1920s found that half of the pupils at the school were infected with tuberculosis, according to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.
The school has largely been torn down, and five teepees now stand at the site, representing the four nations in the area, with the fifth serving as a symbol of the entrance to where the school once stood.
In 2008, the federal government formally apologized for establishing and running the schools, paying billions of Canadian dollars in compensation to survivors.