MASKWACIS, Alberta — Pope Francis offered a sweeping apology to Indigenous people on their native land in Canada on Monday, fulfilling a critical demand of many of the survivors of church-run residential schools that became gruesome centers of abuse, forced assimilation, cultural devastation and death for over a century.
“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said to a large crowd of Indigenous people, some wearing traditional clothing and headdresses, in Maskwacis, Alberta, the site of a former residential school.
The pope made his apology in a pow wow circle, a covered ring surrounding an open space used for traditional dancing and drumming circles. Around it were teepees, campfires, and booths labeled “Mental Health and Cultural Support.”
Francis, who arrived at the event being pushed in a wheelchair, added that his remarks were intended for “every Native community and person” and said that a feeling of “shame” had lingered since he apologized to representatives of Indigenous people in April at the Vatican.
He said he was “deeply sorry” — a remark that triggered applause and approving shouts — for the ways in which “many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.”
“I am sorry,” he continued. “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.”
Those schools separated children from parents; inflicted physical, sexual and mental abuse; erased languages; and used Christianity as a weapon to break the cultures, and communities, of Indigenous people. Christian churches operated most of the schools for the government with Catholic orders responsible for running 60 to 70 percent of the roughly 130 schools, where thousands of children died.
Francis said it was “right to remember” on the site of such traumas, even at the risk of opening old wounds.
“It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation and enfranchisement, which also included the residential school system, were devastating for the people of these lands,” he said, adding, “I thank you for making me appreciate this.”
He called the abuses often carried out with missionary zeal, a “disastrous error” that eroded the people, their culture and values.
Francis also said that “begging pardon is not the end of the matter,” adding that he “fully” agreed with skeptics who wanted actions. And he said that he hoped for further investigations and that “concrete ways” could be found to help survivors begin a path toward healing and reconciliation.
After delivering his speech, which he offered in Spanish and which was translated into English, Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, who had introduced the pope, fitted him with a headdress, its white feathers standing over his white robes. The crowd erupted in applause.
When Francis had finished his remarks, many who had listened said they were satisfied with his apology.
“It was genuine and it was good,” said Cam Bird, 42, a residential school survivor from Little Red River reserve in Saskatchewan. “He believes us.”
But others were still taking stock of what had just happened after so many generations of devastation and trauma.
“I haven’t really digested it yet,” said Barb Morin, 64, from Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan, whose parents suffered in residential schools and who wore a shirt reading “Residential School Survivors Never Forgotten.” “I’m having a really hard time internalizing this right now.”