When an Assembly of First Nations delegation visited the Vatican in 2009 to meet with then-Pope Benedict XVI, the pontiff expressed his “personal sadness” about the torture of Indigenous children forced to attend church-run boarding schools in Canada in a private meeting.
After the discovery last year in British Columbia of about 200 unmarked and previously undocumented graves of children at what was Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school — one of numerous, similar grim sites across the country — what was once considered an expression of deep, heartfelt regret is no longer seen as sufficient.
Indigenous leaders are now expecting Pope Francis to provide a public apology, with government officials all the way up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supporting their case. The pontiff is expected to give exactly such an apology for the church’s participation in boarding school atrocities when he meets with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit survivors at the Vatican next week, ahead of a possible visit to Canada later this year.
“We’re trying to give a voice to the voiceless by going there,” said Gary Gagnon, who will represent the Métis people of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry in the delegation. Originally scheduled for December, the visit was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
From the 19th century to the 1970s, more than 150,000 native children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and cultures, Christianize them, and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous governments considered superior.
Physical and sexual abuse was widespread, with pupils being assaulted for speaking their native languages, according to the administration. Indigenous leaders have pointed to the heritage of abuse and isolation as a major cause of the pandemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on reservations.
Catholic missionary organizations ran about three-quarters of the 130 residential schools.
The Tk’emlps te Secwépemc Nation claimed in May that ground-penetrating radar had discovered gravesites in Kamloops, British Columbia. Although the sites have not yet been excavated, they have reignited a national debate as Indigenous organizations around the country look for burials at other residential schools.
“What really spurred things forward was Kamloops,” said Phil Fontaine, who was national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 2009 and led the delegation that met with Benedict. “It grabbed the attention of so many people.”
Fontaine, 77, said he and his classmates were subjected to physical and sexual assault as children at Manitoba’s Fort Alexander Indian Residential School, where he was only allowed to visit his family for two hours on Sundays despite the fact that they resided nearby.
“Finally Canadians are saying, ‘Oh, so it’s true. This is what happened at residential schools,’” he added. “And I think it put a lot of pressure on the Catholic Church and the Vatican. Keep in mind the prime minister himself asked Francis to apologize.”
Fontaine wants the pope’s visit to Canada, which the Vatican has confirmed but has yet to establish a date, to take place on Indigenous grounds.
Between 1915 and 1963, at least 51 children died at the Kamloops school, according to statistics kept by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The panel found around 3,200 verified fatalities in residential schools across the country, some of which were caused by TB, but over half of them had no cause of death listed. The corpses of students who died were not sent back to their villages as was customary; the panel stated that the administration sought to keep costs down.
The church, according to Calgary Bishop William McGrattan, vice president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, expects that next week’s Vatican meeting will be a historic time for all Canadians, including “our First Nation and our Métis.”
“They will be bringing their own stories and the stories of their communities,” McGrattan said. “Pope Francis and the bishops will listen and respond to make sure we are committed to this path of reconciliation.”
In 2008, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in Parliament for the residential schools, calling them a tragic chapter in Canadian history and claiming that the strategy of forced assimilation had caused significant harm.
Canada paid billions of dollars in restitution to Indigenous people as part of a settlement of a case including the government, churches, and the approximately 90,000 surviving pupils.
The Catholic Church, for its part, has already contributed more than $50 million and plans to contribute another $30 million over the next five years.
The United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches have all issued statements apologizing for their participation.
According to experts, the residential schools in Canada were modeled after comparable facilities in the United States, where Catholic and Protestant faiths operated more than 150 boarding schools throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, all of which were rife with abuse.
While the problem has received little attention in the United States, Fontaine feels that a day of reckoning is approaching for Canada’s southern neighbor.
He said that the goal of the residential school systems was cultural genocide.
“They decided that the best way to do that is to herd children into residential schools, forbid them to speak Indigenous language, forget about their culture,” Fontaine said. “In fact, embrace everything that was not them in terms of culture and tradition, in keeping with federal government policy.”