Pope Francis apologizes for residential school abuses

Pope Francis has issued a public apology for the role that the Catholic Church played in Canada’s residential school system during his visit to the former site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alta.

“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry,” said the Pope in his official apology on Monday.

“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,” he continued.  

A wave of applause rose among the crowd of Indigenous community members and residential school survivors as the Pope delivered his apology.

Among the symbolic gestures of the ceremony: the Pope returned the children-sized moccasins that were given to him at the Vatican meeting with First Nations delegations in March. He said the moccasins served him for the past four month as a reminder of his sense of “sorrow, indignation and shame.”

The Pope was also given a headress to wear by community members following ceremonial signing and drumming.

This apology comes more than seven years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its calls to action. The 58th call to action from the commission called upon the Pope to issue an apology on Canadian soil for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.

Pressure on the Pope to come to Canada and issue an apology had been mounting after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops B.C. last year, which was followed by similar discoveries at numerous other former residential school sites across the country.

Pope Francis said his visit would not take him to all communities he received an invitation to but acknowledged the pain felt across all Indigenous communities across Canada.

“Know that I am aware of the sufferings and traumas, the difficulties and challenges, experienced by the Indigenous peoples in every region of this country. The words that I speak throughout this penitential journey are meant for every native community and person. I embrace all of you with affection,” he said.

Pope Francis quoted writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in addressing the emotional toll many community members and survivors were feeling; emphasizing the importance for non-Indigenous people to learn and remember Canada’s dark history as to not become indifferent to it.

“Yet it is right to remember, because forgetfulness leads to indifference and, as has been said, ‘the opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference… and the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference,'” he said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children attended the residential school system, mostly by force, from the late 1800s to 1996.

Of the 139 schools in the system, more than half had been run by the Catholic Church. The commission estimates that approximately 4,100 to 6,000 children died amid abuse and neglect while in the residential school system.

Pope Francis also called for formal investigations to be conducted into what occurred in these residential schools as the apology only symbolizes the first step in the reconciliation process.

“An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered,” he said.  


If you are a former residential school survivor in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.

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