The pope apologizes to natives for abusing schools in Canada

Vatican City – Pope Francis on Friday apologized to indigenous peoples for the “unfortunate” abuse suffered by the church-run schools in Canada and said he hopes to visit Canada in late July to deliver the apology in person to Catholic survivors. The misguided missionary passion of the church.

Francis pleaded for forgiveness during a meeting with dozens of members of the pilgrim communities, the Inuit and the first nations who came to Rome asking for the pope’s apology and commitment to the Catholic Church to repair the damage. The first pope from America said he hopes to visit Canada “in the days” around St. Anne’s, which falls on July 26 and is dedicated to the grandmother of Jesus.

The former head of the First Nations Assembly, Phil Fontaine, on the left, stands outside St. Peter’s Square at the end of a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday. Associated Press / Andrew Medicini

More than 150,000 native-born children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century to the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The goal was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments saw as a priority.

After hearing their stories all week, Francis told the natives that the colonial project tore children from their families, a fragment of roots, traditions and culture and sparked intergenerational trauma that is still felt today. According to him, this is a “counter-witness” to the news that the school system has claimed to uphold.

“For the shameful conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness,” Francis said. “And I want to tell you wholeheartedly that I am in great pain. And I unite with the Canadian bishops in an apology.”

Francis said he felt ashamed of the role Catholic educators played in the injury, “in the abuse and disrespect for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” he said. “It is clear that the content of the belief cannot be transferred in an external manner to the belief itself.”

“It’s chilling to think of determined efforts to instill a sense of inferiority, rob people of their cultural identity, sever their roots, and consider all the personal and social impacts that this continues to entail: unresolved traumas that have become intergenerational traumas,” he said.

The trip of the natives to Rome was in the making for years, but gained momentum last year after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked tombs outside some of the residential schools in Canada. The three groups of natives met separately with Francis for several hours of the week, which culminated with the crowd on Friday.

Francis spoke Italian and the natives had English translations read together. Matisse National Council president Cassidy Caron said Matisse’s elderly man sitting next to her burst into tears when he heard what she said was an apology late.

“The pope’s words today were historic, no doubt. They were necessary, and I greatly appreciate them,” Caron told reporters in St. Peter’s Square. “And I now look forward to the Pope’s visit to Canada, where he can offer these sincere apologies directly to our survivors and their families, whose ultimately acceptance and healing are paramount.”

Caron handed Francis a bound book of folk tales: much of what the natives sought to achieve during their meetings this week was to tell Francis the stories of personal loss and abuse they had suffered.

The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse raged in schools, and students were beaten because they spoke their mother tongue. This legacy of abuse and isolation from the family has been cited by Native leaders as the root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction in Canadian reserves.

Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Catholic missionary communities.

Last May, the nation of Tk’emlups te Secwepemc announced the discovery of 215 grave sites near Kamloops, British Columbia, found using a ground-penetrating radar. It was the largest Canadian-born residential school and the discovery of the tombs was the first of several similar gloomy sites across the country.

After the pope’s apology, the audience continued with joyful performances of indigenous prayers, drums, dances and violins which Francis watched, clapped and at one point gave a thumbs up to them. The natives then gave him presents, including snowshoes.

Francis’ apology went far beyond what Pope Benedict XVI had suggested when visiting a delegation of the First Nations General Assembly in 2009. At the time, Benedict was only expressing “his sorrow at the anguish caused by the shameful behavior of some of the church members.” But he did not apologize.

The Argentine pope is no stranger to offering apologies for his own mistakes and for what he himself called the “crimes” of the institutional church. Most significantly, during a visit to Bolivia in 2015, he apologized for the sins, crimes and offenses committed by the Church against Native peoples during the conquest of America in the colonial era.

He made it clear that the same colonial crimes had occurred much more recently in Canada in Catholic-run schools.

“The chain that transmitted knowledge and lifestyles, in union with the territory, was broken by the colonization, which disrespectfully tore many of you from the vital environment and tried to adapt to a different mentality,” Francis said. “So your identity and culture have been damaged, many families have separated, many children have become victims of this act of homogenization, supported by the idea that progress occurs through ideological colonization, according to plans learned on the table instead of honoring the lives of peoples.”


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