Pope Francis plans to deliver a long-awaited apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s policy of forcibly assimilating indigenous people into Christian society
MASKWACIS, AB — Pope Francis arrived at the site of a former Indigenous boarding school Monday to deliver a long-awaited apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s policy of forcibly assimilation of indigenous people into Christian society, which has left generations of trauma and abuse led.
Francis clasped his hands under his chin and prayed in the cemetery near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, now mostly demolished, before being escorted by four chiefs to a gathering of thousands of Indigenous people. After the traditional indigenous hand drummer played and sang to welcome Francis, the Pope prayed in silence and the sun peeked out after a rainy morning.
One of the hosts of the event, Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, waited for the Pope in a nearby parking lot and took stock of the historic significance of the day.
“My deceased family members are no longer here with us, my parents went to boarding school, I went to boarding school,” he told The Associated Press, dressed in a traditional Cree feathered headdress. “I know they are with me, they are listening, they are watching.”
Many in the crowd wore traditional clothing, including ribbon skirts and waistcoats with indigenous motifs. Others wore orange shirts, which have become a symbol of boarding school survivors, and recalled the story of a woman who recalled having her favorite orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, confiscated upon arrival at a boarding school and replaced with a uniform became.
Upon arriving in Alberta’s capital Edmonton on Sunday, Francis was greeted by representatives of Canada’s three main indigenous groups – First Nations, Metis and Inuit – as well as political and church dignitaries. At the welcoming ceremony, Francis kissed the hand of a boarding school survivor, Elder Alma Desjarlais of Frog Lake First Nations, a gesture of humility and reverence he has used in the past when meeting Holocaust survivors.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the state-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century through the 1970s. About 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to participate in order to isolate them from the influence of their homeland, native languages and cultures and to integrate them into Canada’s Christian society.
Catholic orders operated 66 of Canada’s 139 boarding schools, where thousands of children died from disease, fires and other causes.
Francis’ six-day trip, which will also include other locations in Alberta as well as Quebec City and Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the far north, follows meetings he had at the Vatican in the spring with First Nations, Metis and Inuit delegations. These meetings culminated in a historic April 1 apology for the “regrettable” abuses committed by some Catholic missionaries in boarding schools.
The first pope from America was determined to make the trip, although a knee ligament tear forced him to cancel a visit to Africa earlier this month. Francis, 85, has called it a “penitential pilgrimage” to help the Catholic Church reconcile with indigenous people and help them heal from what Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called “cultural genocide.”
The same commission report asked Francis to apologize for the mistreatment he suffered on Canadian soil, a request he is fulfilling with the trip.
Thousands of children died from diseases, fires and other causes. The discovery over the past year of hundreds of potential burial sites at former schools has drawn international attention to the heritage of schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States.
Maskwacis, about an hour south of Edmonton, is the center of four Cree nations.
Event organizers said they would do everything they could to ensure survivors could attend the event. Many will arrive from park-and-ride locations, and organizers recognize that many survivors are elderly and require accessible vehicles, diabetic-friendly snacks and other amenities.
Catholics operated the majority of Canada’s schools, while various Protestant denominations operated others in cooperation with the government.
As part of a legal battle involving the government, churches and some 90,000 surviving students, 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 and hope to add another $30 million over the next five years.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who last year apologized for “incredibly harmful government policies” in organizing the home school system, will also attend the Maskwacis event along with other government officials.
At Maskwacis, the former school Francis attends has been replaced with a school system run by the four local Cree nations. The curriculum affirms the once oppressed indigenous culture.
Chief Greg Desjarlais of Frog Lake First Nation in northern Alberta, a survivor of the school, said after the pope’s arrival on Sunday that there were “mixed feelings in this country” about his visit.
“I’m thinking today of the young people who didn’t make it home and are buried near boarding schools,” he said at a press conference after the welcome ceremony at the airport. But he expressed optimism that the visit can begin to bring about reconciliation.
“I know we feel better when two people have apologized,” he said. “But our people have been through a lot. … Our people have been traumatized. Some of them didn’t make it home. Now I hope the world sees why our people are so hurt.”
On Monday afternoon, Francis will visit Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, a Catholic congregation in Edmonton that is inspired by indigenous peoples and their culture. The church, whose sanctuary was dedicated last week after being restored after a fire, incorporates indigenous language and customs into the liturgy.
“I never thought in my life that I would see a pope here at Sacred Heart Church,” said Fernie Marty, who holds the title of church elder. “And now we get this opportunity.”
When Francis visits, the church will display the clothing, bread and other supplies it regularly distributes to those in need, including many of Edmonton’s estimated 75,000 indigenous people.
The visit will be an “encounter” that will help “people know what we are, who we are,” said the pastor, Rev. Jesu Susai.
Associated Press reporter Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.
https://www.king5.com/article/news/community/facing-race/pope-historic-apology-residential-school-abuses-canada/281-80a21686-7f41-47a1-a223-d5744e3569c3 Pope apologizes for Indigenous residential schools in Canada