Pope Francis apologizes to residential school survivors in Canada for ‘the wrong done by so many Christians’

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MASKWACIS, Alta. — Pope Francis began a long-awaited act of reconciliation in Canada on Monday, denouncing the country’s “catastrophic” residential school system for Indigenous children and asking forgiveness for the “evil committed by so many Christians.”

“I am deeply sorry – sorry for the way in which, unfortunately, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples, Francis said in his native Spanish.

He addressed his comments to several thousand residential school survivors in a grassy field surrounded by a small dais on the first full day of a journey to repent of one of Canada’s greatest tragedies: a school system that forcibly separated indigenous children from their parents and tried to assimilate them – often brutally – into Euro-Christian society.

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“It is painful to think of how the firm ground of values, language and culture that constituted your peoples’ authentic identity has been eroded, and you have continued to pay the price,” said Francois.

His use of the word “sorry” twice drew cheers and applause. He briefly donned a feathered headdress given to him after his remarks, drawing louder cheers.

Francis’ visit is a response to years of indigenous demands for recognition from the Catholic Church, which ran the majority of schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Francis wavered for much of his pontificate, he faced increasing pressure after Indigenous groups said last year that ground-penetrating radar had located hundreds of unmarked graves nearby. old boarding schools.

The trip is a major break from the norms of papal overseas travel, in which celebration and evangelism tend to be central goals. Francis, 85, opted for only a modest welcome ceremony when he landed in Edmonton on Sunday, where he was greeted with Indigenous music. He chose not to comment until arriving Monday morning in Maskwacis, an aboriginal community in the plains of Alberta between Edmonton and Calgary, surrounded by fields of yellow canola.

Previously, Francis had prayed in a cemetery believed to hold the remains of boarding school students, and he had visited the former site of the Ermineskin boarding school, which opened in 1895 and was operated by Roman Catholic missionaries for much of it. of its existence. It was placed under federal control in 1969 and closed in 1970.

Francis hosted an indigenous delegation at the Vatican in April and then apologized for the “deplorable conduct” of some “members” of the Catholic Church in the residential school system.

Some survivors say those words didn’t go far enough. They hoped that Francis would take on the complicity of the Catholic Church. But Francis’s remarks on Monday hit about the same note as previous apologies, in that he lamented the actions of individuals in the church – not the church itself.

“I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the way in which many members of the Church and religious communities cooperated, notably through their indifference, in the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time. , which resulted in the residential school system,” Francis said.

Pope Francis visits Canada with an apology on the agenda

He also referenced John Paul II, saying that “the Church kneels before God and asks his forgiveness for the sins of her children.”

Francis is still expected to deliver further penitential remarks later in the week.

When the Presbyterian Church of Canada issued its apology in 1994, the wrongdoing was blamed on the church itself. “We confess that the Presbyterian Church in Canada is supposed to know better than Indigenous people what is necessary for life,” the church said in a statement.

The last residential schools closed in the 1990s, but the colonialist ideas behind them continue to cause judgment in the Roman Catholic Church today. Francis, the first South American pope, comes from a continent where Christianity was introduced by conquerors. During a trip to Bolivia in 2015, he apologized for the “serious sins” of the church during colonialism and for the crimes committed against indigenous people.

The Ermineskin boarding school, when in operation, was one of the largest in Canada. In testimony before the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools, former Ermineskin students described days marked by loneliness, fear and abuse. One said she was told that the Sun Dance, an Aboriginal ceremony, was tantamount to devil worship.

Marilyn Buffalo told the commission that teachers called the children “savages”.

Overcrowding and disease outbreaks, including measles, hepatitis, and diphtheria, were common. A 1940s survey found that a third of students suffered from tuberculosis and suggested that students be sent to hospital. Instead, some were sent home and others were kept under observation.

In 1966, a supervisor of Ermineskin wrote to the Chief Superintendent of Education of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs reporting that priests were whipping girls with straps on their “bare buttocks”. She included testimony from two students. She was fired.

At least 15 children have died or gone missing at Ermineskin School, according to the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, over its history.

Victor Buffalo was 7 years old and did not speak English when he was sent to Ermineskin. Buffalo, who is not related to Marilyn Buffalo, told the Washington Post that school administrators withheld food as punishment and frequently whipped him for speaking his native cry.

After such a beating in front of his friends, Buffalo, the former chief of the Samson Cree Nation in Alberta, retreated to a nearby bathroom to cry — not because he was in physical pain, he said. he said, but because his mother and father weren’t there to take care of him.

Buffalo said his relationship with his parents, who also attended residential schools, was strained for many decades after he left school in 1961. Severing ties with Aboriginal culture, including family ties, was the one of the goals of the system.

“The biggest thing we lost was love,” said Buffalo, who will be present when Francis visits Maskwacis. “A family’s love, a mother’s love, a father’s love.”

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