MASKWACIS, Alberta — Pope Francis on Monday issued a historic apology for the Catholic Church’s collusion with Canada’s “disastrous” indigenous boarding school policy, saying that the forced assimilation of indigenous people into Christian society is destroying their cultures, separating families and marginalizing generations have.
“I am deeply sorry,” Francis said to applause from school survivors and Indigenous community members gathered at a former boarding school south of Edmonton, Alberta. He called the school policy a “catastrophic error” inconsistent with the gospel and said further investigation and healing are needed.
“I humbly ask forgiveness for the evil that so many Christians have committed against indigenous peoples,” Francis said.
In the first event of his week-long “Penitential Pilgrimage,” Francis traveled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray in a cemetery and then deliver the long-awaited apology at a nearby powwow ceremonial site. Four chiefs escorted the wheelchair-bound Pope to the compound near the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School and, after his speech, presented him with a feathered headdress, making him the honorary leader of the community.
Francis’ words went beyond his earlier apologies for “deplorable” mistreatment by missionaries and instead accepted institutional responsibility for the church’s cooperation with Canada’s “catastrophic” assimilation policies, which the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide.” .
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century through the 1970s to isolate them from the influence of their homeland and culture. The goal was to Christianize them and integrate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
Ottawa has admitted physical and sexual abuse was rampant in schools and that students were beaten for speaking their native language. This legacy of this abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a major cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on Canadian reservations.
The discovery last year of hundreds of potential burial sites at former schools drew international attention to schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States. The revelations prompted Francis to comply with the Truth Commission’s request for an apology on Canadian soil; Catholic orders operated 66 of the country’s 139 boarding schools.
Considering the conflicting emotions of the day, some in the crowd wept as Francis spoke, while others applauded or listened in silence to his words, delivered in his native Spanish, with English translations. Others chose not to participate at all.
“I’ve waited 50 years for this apology, and today I finally heard it,” said survivor Evelyn Korkmaz. “Part of me is happy, part of me is sad, part of me is numb.” However, she added that she was hoping to hear the pope give him a “work plan” about what he would do next, to reconcile, including the release of church records of children dying in schools.
Many in the crowd wore traditional clothing, including brightly colored ribbon skirts and waistcoats with indigenous motifs. Others wore orange shirts, which have become a symbol of school survivors, and evokes the story of a woman whose beloved orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was confiscated at a school and replaced with a uniform.
“It’s something that not only needs to be heard by the people, but also by the church to be accountable,” said Sandi Harper, who traveled from Saskatchewan with her sister and a church group to memorialize her late mother, who died attended boarding school.
“He acknowledges that this road to reconciliation will take time, but he’s really on board,” she said, calling the apology “genuine.”
Despite the solemnity of the event, the atmosphere at times seemed upbeat: chiefs marched into the venue to a hypnotic drumbeat, elders danced, and the crowd cheered and sang war songs, victory songs, and finally a healing song. Participants carried a long red banner through the grounds bearing the names of more than 4,000 children who died in boarding schools or never came home from boarding schools; Francis later kissed it.
“I was not disappointed. It was quite a momentous occasion,” said Phil Fontaine, a boarding school survivor and former First Nations Assembly leader who went public in the 1990s with his story of sexual abuse.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who apologized last year for “incredibly harmful government policies,” also attended along with other officials.
As part of a court case involving the government, churches and some 90,000 survivors, Canada paid billions in reparations that were wired to indigenous communities. Canada’s Catholic Church says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50 million in cash and in-kind donations and hope to add another $30 million over the next five years.
While acknowledging blame, the Pope also made it clear that Catholic missionaries merely cooperated with and implemented government policies, in what he termed the “colonization mentality of the powers that be”. In particular, he made no reference to 15th-century papal decrees that offered any religious support to the European colonial powers.
Jeremy Bergen, an expert in church apology and a professor of religious and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, said Francis made it clear that he seeks forgiveness for the actions of “members of the church,” but not for them institution as a whole.
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/pope-francis-set-deliver-historic-apology-school-abuses-canada-rcna39783 Pope Francis apologizes for ‘devastating’ school abuse in Canada