Pope Francis visits Canada to apologize for residential schools

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TORONTO — Pope Francis is set to begin a visit to Canada on Sunday, where he will face one of the country’s greatest tragedies: the often abusive residential schools, run with the help of the Catholic Church, designed to extinguish Indigenous culture and family ties.

This long-awaited trip is unlike any other in papal history: expressing remorse is its primary purpose.

Francis has faced calls throughout his papacy to apologize to Canada for the church’s role in the residential school system, but pressure has grown over the past year as several Indigenous groups have said ground-penetrating radar had uncovered evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves at or near the sites. old schools.

The findings spurred a national judgment on the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada and tarnished the reputation of the church here. After resisting calls for an apology, Francis told an indigenous delegation to the Vatican in April that he was “sorry” for the behavior of “a number of Catholics” and that he intended to visit the Canada.

Randy Ermineskin, chief of the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, said he hoped the pope’s remarks would bring healing.

“We want the truth about what happened in these schools to be shared with the public,” he said. “Everyone needs to know what happened to us and that it will never happen again.”

What to Know About Canada’s Indian Residential Schools and the Unmarked Graves Found Nearby

Beginning in the 19th century, at least 150,000 Aboriginal children were separated from their families, sometimes forcibly, to attend boarding schools, which were funded by the government and run by churches. The last school closed in the 1990s.

By all indications, these were schools in name only. Children were severely punished for speaking their mother tongues and practicing their traditions, and many of them suffered sexual, psychological and physical abuse and neglect.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded in a 2015 report that the residential school system had perpetrated “cultural genocide, leaving deep wounds and intergenerational trauma within Indigenous families found across Canada.

The commission devoted much of its report to unmarked burial sites and missing children in schools. It identified 3,200 deceased children, a figure that has increased since it was published. The rate was higher than for non-Aboriginal children.

Children have died of illness, suicide, accidents or trying to run away. Sometimes neither the government nor the school recorded the names of deceased students or reported the death to their families. Many children were not sent home and were buried in unmarked graves.

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Most schools were run by Catholic entities. Among the commission’s 94 calls to action was a formal papal apology on Canadian soil.

Francis is the first pope to visit Canada since Pope John Paul II visited in 2002 for World Youth Day, which included an outdoor mass in a Toronto park that drew several hundred thousand pilgrims. . This trip will have another content.

The papal apologies are not new, and they have addressed specific and broad past mistakes, including the sins of colonialism and the church’s discrimination against women. But when such apologies came on foreign visits – like John Paul II, to Cameroon in 1985, apologizing for the involvement of white Christians in the slave trade – they were incorporated into papal programs. of celebration and encounter.

The trip to Canada is much less lavish: “A penitential pilgrimage”, François recently called it.

Over six days, Francis has at least five scheduled meetings with Indigenous groups, and he is expected to issue a series of messages of remorse, not one, including Monday after visiting the former Ermineskin residential school site in Maskwacis, Alta.

Although it happens on a Sunday, Francis will not publicly celebrate Mass until Tuesday. Reverend Cristino Bouvette, national liturgical director for the visitation, said it was deliberate.

“I think he’s signaling that he came with a mission in mind and that is to meet Indigenous people on their land,” said Bouvette, a priest whose grandmother was a residential school survivor, “and to extend this symbolic olive branch in the hope of reconciliation…. What he comes to do here is quite specific.

Organizers said the route was planned with the 85-year-old pontiff’s declining mobility in mind. Francis canceled a trip planned for this month to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan so as not to jeopardize the health of his knee.

Investigation Reveals Burial Sites at 53 Federal Indian Residential Schools

His tour of Canada begins in the prairie province of Alberta, home to the largest number of residential schools, and includes stops in Quebec City and the arctic territory of Nunavut.

Organizers said Indigenous participation was a top priority, and Ottawa said last week it would provide $23 million to Indigenous groups for the visit, including travel costs.

But in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Indigenous peoples contributed little to the visit and were “revictimized.”

“This visit and apology has evolved to be more for the benefit of Canadian Catholic parishioners and the global Christian community,” she wrote, “and less about actual measures of reparation and reconciliation with the First Nations community. who has been harmed by the institutions of assimilation and genocide.”

For Indigenous leaders, Francis’ journey was a hard-won one.

The federal government and the Anglican, United and Presbyterian Churches of Canada apologized for their role in residential schools in the 1990s and met their financial obligations to survivors under a 2006 settlement.

While some Catholic entities and local church leaders here have apologized, Francis has long resisted calls, including a personal call from Trudeau in 2017, to follow suit.

But earlier this year, the pope hosted an indigenous delegation at the Vatican, capping their meeting with an apology for “deplorable conduct” in boarding schools by “members” of the Catholic Church.

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Former Samson Cree Nation Chief Victor Buffalo said he cried while watching the apology on TV.

“For him to say that is very, very touching,” said Buffalo, 80, who attended Ermineskin boarding school. “Our people need to hear this – that the wrongs done to us need to be righted, need to be reconciled.”

While the apology was welcomed as a much-needed first step, some Indigenous peoples want Francis to expand it, focusing not only on the actions of specific Catholics but also acknowledging the complicity of the institution as a whole.

During his pontificate, while dealing with the current crisis of clerical sexual abuse, Francis has gradually pushed the Church to recognize more openly the failures of Church leaders who have contributed to the systemic nature of the crimes and the concealment.

David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, said Francis’ handling of the abuse crisis likely influenced his handling of that moment and shaped his approach to apologies: that they should be addressed to specific victims, after having met them. and listen to them.

“[An apology] can only be a decree, read from the balcony of Saint-Pierre,” he said. “It is now a personal action between the pope and a person or a people.”

Dorene Bernard was 4 years old when she was sent to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, where children were called by numbers, not names. Bernard was often tied up with a leather belt and forbidden to speak to his brother, who was also a student. The school was run by a Catholic entity.

She said Francis’ apology in April rang “hollow”.

“He was the one apologizing on behalf of some members,” Bernard, 66, said. “It’s systemic abuse.”

Survivors also want religious groups to release materials that could help identify children who died in schools and for Francis to address the issue of compensation. Bernard and others ask him to renounce the papal bulls of the 15th century which consecrated the doctrine of discovery and served to justify colonization.

“That’s my prayer,” said Bernard. “It’s not enough to say ‘I’m sorry’. You need action.

Harlan reported from Rome.

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