“In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children.”
Between 1881 and 1996 more than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families and brought to residential schools. Many children were starved, beaten and sexually abused in a system that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide”.
“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,” the Pope said.
The discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in British Columbia last year brought the issue to the fore again. Since then, the suspected remains of hundreds more children have been detected at other former residential schools around the country.
A red banner with names of missing children was carried before the Pope.
Wallace Yellowface, 78, a boarding school survivor from Pikanni Nation Reserve in Southern Alberta, said the Pope’s message was too little, too late for him.
“It’s late for an apology, and I don’t think it will do me much good,” he said, adding that he was still trying to find out what happened to his sister, who also attended a residential school.
Before making his address, Francis, sitting in a wheelchair, prayed in a field of crosses in the cemetery of the Our Lady of Seven Sorrows indigenous Catholic parish and passed by a stone memorial to the two residential schools once in the area.
Survivors and leaders of indigenous communities say they want more than an apology. They also want financial compensation, the return of artefacts sent to the Vatican by missionaries, support in bringing an alleged abuser now living in France to justice, and the release of records held by the religious orders that ran the schools.
Some also have called for the Catholic Church to renounce 15th-century papal bulls, or edicts, that justified colonial powers taking away indigenous land.
Francis called for “a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered”.
In January, the Canadian government agreed to pay $CA40 billion ($45 billion) to compensate First Nations children who were taken from their families.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops promised to raise $CA30 million for healing, culture and language revitalisation and other initiatives. The fund has raised $CA4.6 million so far.
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