Pope Francis has asked Indigenous peoples of Canada for forgiveness for crimes committed against indigenous children by church officials. Members of the Catholic Church and religious orders have participated in “projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation” of indigenous people, the head of the Catholic Church said on Monday.
This culminated in the “boarding school system,” he said, in the small town of Maskwacis near the city of Edmonton, Alberta. There he met representatives of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
For decades, starting in the 1880s, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in Church-run boarding schools in Canada. In schools, many children experienced violence, sexual abuse, hunger and disease. Hundreds died. The last boarding schools closed in 1996. The program, initiated by the state and supported by the church, was intended to adapt the children to Western Christian society.
Pope Francis asked for forgiveness several times in his speech. The Argentine said the policy of assimilation and disenfranchisement was “devastating” and “catastrophic” for the people in these areas. “I ask your forgiveness, in particular, for the way in which many members of the Church and religious communities participated, also through indifference, in the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation by the governments of the time, culminating in the boarding school system ‘ said Francis.
At the end of his speech, which was also attended by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Pope was given a traditional indigenous feather headdress.
Representatives of the indigenous groups visited Francis at the end of March in the Vatican. Even then, the pontiff asked for an apology for the actions of the church.
Francis now recalled the reports he had received from the indigenous representatives in Rome at the time. The boarding schools denigrated and suppressed the language and culture of the indigenous people, he said. Children were “abused physically, verbally, psychologically, and spiritually” and “taken from home,” Francis said.
The discovery of hundreds of anonymous children’s graves near the boarding schools since May last year has made their fate known worldwide – although it has been discussed in Canada for years. In 2015, a state-appointed commission described the crimes committed by school staff as “cultural genocide.”
Victims are still demanding compensation from the church and access to the church archives, where documents related to the boarding schools are kept. Almost 2000 survivors of the former boarding schools were expected in Maskwacis. During Francis’ speech they applauded again and again.
People from all over the country traveled to the place with a few thousand inhabitants. Lizzie and Yvette Daniels, two boarding school survivors, say they drove all night to see the Pope at Maskwacis. “It’s overwhelming,” said Lizzie Daniels of the German Press Agency. For them, the most important thing is to hear the Pope’s apology.
There was also a boarding school in Maskwacis. In Francis’ own words, the place evoked a “cry of pain” that accompanied him in the past few months. “I think of the tragedy suffered by so many of you, your families, your communities,” the pontiff said.
In his speech, which was held in Spanish, the South American quoted the Holocaust survivor and renowned author Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. The opposite of life is not death, but indifference to life and death.”
The encounters with the indigenous people are the main reason for the Pope’s multi-day trip to the second largest country in the world in terms of area with around 38 million inhabitants. He will meet other indigenous representatives in other parts of the country in the coming days.
On Monday afternoon (local time), Francis wanted to visit a Catholic church in Edmonton that Archbishop Joseph MacNeil made a parish for Christians, First Nations, Métis and Inuit in 1991. It was the first place of worship of its kind in Canada, where the Catholic faith and Aboriginal culture were allowed to flow together.