Following a week of discussions with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis delegations, Pope Francis has apologized for the actions of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system.
The delegates had convened at the Vatican for a final and public audience with Pope Francis on Friday, during which Francis expressed his “sorrow and shame” over the behaviour of those in charge of the schools.
“I also feel shame … sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, and the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” he said.
“For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart, I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”
Francis also expressed interest in visiting Canada “in the days” leading up to the church’s Feast of St. Anne, which is celebrated on July 26.
One of the principal delegates, Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, compared hearing the apology to going through the snow and seeing new moose footprints.
“That is the feeling that I have, because there is a possibility,” he said moments after the apology.
“Today is a day that we’ve been waiting for and certainly one that will be uplifted in our history.”
The apology would be viewed differently by survivors and their families, according to Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
“Today we have a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “We have a heartfelt expression from the church that was delivered by Pope Francis in an empathetic and caring way.”
The apology comes at the end of a week of private conversations between the Pope and representatives from Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples concerning the Catholic Church’s participation in the residential school system.
The Inuit group also pressed the Pope to act in the case of a fugitive Oblate priest wanted in Canada for sex crimes, while First Nation representatives urged the Pope to cancel centuries-old papal decrees that were used to legitimize colonial forces’ takeover of Indigenous territories in the Americas.
Indigenous leaders have also pressed the church to honor its obligations to compensate survivors of residential schools and to repatriate Indigenous cultural objects.
Between the 1880s and 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, with the Catholic Church running more than 60% of them.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his excitement for the Pope’s visit. “In acknowledging the truth of our past,” he said, the apology was a step forward.
“Today’s apology will resurface strong emotions of hurt and trauma for many,” he said in a media statement.
“We cannot separate the legacy of the residential school system from the institutions that created, maintained, and operated it, including the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church.”
Indigenous leaders, according to Antoine, should be included in the planning of the Pope’s visit.
“We seek to hear his words. They also seek the words of apology at home,” he said.
The apology, according to former Assembly of First Nations head Phil Fontaine, is not the end of “this long, tragic story about residential schools.”
“Now the hard work starts,” he told Matt Galloway of The Current.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated Canada’s residential school system from 2008 to 2015, recommended a papal apology as one of its 94 recommendations. The panel also asked all religious and faith organizations to reject notions that have been used to legitimize European dominion over Indigenous peoples and territories.
In a letter to the Pope handed at his private meeting with Assembly of First Nations delegates this week, Colleen Jacob, the former chief of Xaxli’p First Nation in British Columbia, wrote about her experience attending residential school.
Jacob said she still remembers the bus picking her up for the first time when she was seven years old, in 1974.
She claimed she was separated from her older brother after being dropped off.
“It was a big shock to me because back home I used to follow him everywhere,” Jacob said. “I would cry when he wouldn’t take me.”
In subsequent years, the Pope has issued a number of additional apologies. In 2015, Francis traveled to Bolivia to seek forgiveness for the church’s atrocities against Indigenous peoples during the colonial period in Latin America. On a visit to Ireland in 2018, Pope issued a broad apology for the Catholic Church’s misdeeds in Ireland, claiming that church leaders failed to respond compassionately to the countless atrocities children and women had endured over the years.
The Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches have previously expressed regret for their participation in the residential school system in Canada.