Pope Francis asked forgiveness this past Monday for the actions of the Catholic Church in boarding schools for indigenous communities in Canada, where minors suffered systematic abuse under a state policy known as “forced assimilation.” The pontiff, who began a trip to the North American country on Sunday, acknowledged that this practice was “a devastating error incompatible with the Gospel.”
In a meeting with native representatives from an old center in the province of Alberta, Francis apologized for the “colonialist mentality” of many Christians and called for an investigation of the boarding schools, as well as requesting more support for those affected and their families.
“I would like to repeat with shame and clarity: I humbly ask forgiveness for the evil that so many Christians have committed against indigenous peoples,” the Pope said. And, when speaking specifically about these schools, he has emphasized the same message: “I am hurt. I apologize, in particular, for how many members of the Church and religious communities cooperated, also through indifference, in those projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation of the Governments of the time, which ended in the residential school system.
Francis’ visit, long demanded by the Canadian indigenous communities, had in fact as its central purpose to reiterate these apologies for the abuses committed in boarding schools, whose wound remains open and continues to mark the peoples of Canada. The Pope had already declared in Rome on July 17th that it was about doing “penance” to “contribute to the path of healing and reconciliation already undertaken.”
The six-day trip is the fourth made by a pontiff to Canada. John Paul II visited the North American country in 1984, 1987, and 2002. In addition to the provinces of Alberta and Quebec, he will travel to the Territory of Nunavut. He will hold meetings with members of the clergy and political authorities (such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada). He will also officiate masses in the cities of Edmonton and Quebec.
The agenda, however, will be mainly focused on meetings with indigenous leaders and former students of the so-called residential schools. Like the one on Monday, during a visit to the old Ermineskin boarding school (in Maskwacis, Alberta), or the one in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, whose population is mostly of Inuit origin.
Ghislain Picard, head of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, declared last Wednesday that, in any case, it will be up to the survivors of the boarding schools to judge whether or not the Pope’s words are acceptable. “Apologies will only be very meaningful to the extent that they produce actions that support them,” he said.
Between the 19th century and the end of the past century, around 150,000 indigenous children lived in a network of 139 centers financed by the federal government and administered by religious orders (mostly belonging to the Catholic Church). Beatings, sexual assaults, abandonment, racism, and cultural rejection were some of the practices denounced in these boarding schools. Trudeau has been especially blunt in his condemnation and a year ago he stated that “the biggest mistake this country has made is the forced assimilation of indigenous minors through boarding schools.”
According to the calculations of the experts, more than 6,000 children died in these places. The discovery of more than 1,400 unmarked graves – since May 2021 – on the grounds of these ancient institutions has confirmed the horror of the report published in 2015 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.