Pope Francis went on what he called a six-day “penitential pilgrimage” across Canada to atone for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system in Canada.
The residential school system in Canada was a government-funded network of (often Catholic) boarding schools across the country. The goal of the program, which ran from the late 19th century into the early 1990s, was to assimilate roughly 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada by forcibly removing them from their families and encouraging them to abandon their native languages and cultures. The Canadian government referred to this as remedying the “Indian problem.”
A commission funded by the Canadian government would later call this system “cultural genocide.”
The program came under the international spotlight last summer with the reported discovery of an unmarked mass grave containing some 215 children at the site of one of these residential schools, prompting investigations that uncovered other potential mass grave sites. It is now estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 children died within this system, although the evidence behind the mass graves themselves remains muddy.
Nonetheless, it's clear the Catholic Church bears significant responsibility for the mistreatment of native children in Canada.
Now, a year later, Pope Francis is formally saying sorry… but many argue he’s still not taking proper accountability for the Catholic Church’s major role in the atrocities.
A Delayed Apology
It took nearly a year from the discovery of the alleged mass grave at Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia for Pope Francis to officially apologize on behalf of the church. In April, he begged First Nations representatives for forgiveness for the church’s role in “the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.”
On July 24, he landed in Edmonton from Rome to begin his official apology tour, a whirlwind six-day tour through Canada.
During this tour, Pope Francis called the residential school system “evil” and again apologized and begged forgiveness.
“I am sorry,” he said. “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.”
It’s a Start
Many accepted the apology… but only as a first step. Critics feel that the pontiff repeatedly tried to pinpoint blame on individuals, instead of taking accountability for the church’s role as an institution in the residential school system. And many didn’t take kindly to him pointing out that the residential school systems were promoted by the government, arguing that it was a shirking of responsibility.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was chief among them. He said that they must apologize “ for the role that the Roman Catholic Church, as an institution, played in the mistreatment on the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse that Indigenous children suffered in residential schools run by the church.”
Others found some “gaps” in the pope’s apology as well. Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller pointed out that Pope Francis initially conspicuously left off sexual abuse when recounting the sins committed against the Indigenous children, although he later acknowledged sexual assault towards the end of his trip.
While it’s a first step, many First Nations people were still happy that the pontiff gave a sincere – if overdue – apology.
“After meeting with (the) Pope and hearing his words, I believe there is a path forward together,” said Alexander First Nation Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. But, he added, “there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
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